Making Fire From Sparks

Making Fire From Sparks by Mark Hordon

This video was filmed at the Bushcraft Magazine – May Meet 2014 by Zed Outdoors.

SUBJECT: – Beginners Guide To ‘Flint & Steel’ Fire Lighting – A Shark Tinderbox Tutorial

DURATION: – 42 minutes

Article

In this article we will look at how to make a fire from sparks that are generated from the traditional Flint & Steel as well as the modern Ferrocerium Fire Flint Striking rods. We will first look at the materials that are needed to take a spark from a burning piece of flying steel or Ferrocerium, to a full blazing fire. Next we will look at the methods best utilised for each type of spark generator.

Spark Size Matters

The size of the spark that emanates from any sparking method really does matter.

As with any spark, from say the very ancient ‘Flint & Pyrite’, the comparatively modern ‘Flint & Steel’ and the superhot sparks from 20th century invention of Mischmetal (Invented by Carl Auer von Welsbach in 1903 and is often referred to  ‘Ferrocerium’, or ‘Pyrophoric Alloy’, or ‘Fire Flint’ or even ‘FireSteel’, the list is almost endless) the size and heat of the spark is dependent upon how much material is shaved off at any one time to create the spark and the combustion temperature of the sparking material. In theory, if the sparking shard is larger, the spark that is created will burn for longer and also be bigger, the bigger the spark the more heat it holds and time it has to transfer that essential property to the tinder and thus the more likelihood that a burning ember will be formed. However, in practice, there is always a trade off between spark size / heat and the speed / pressure friction that can be utilised to create it. The bigger the spark the more energy is needed to create it, which means more speed and pressure friction. Greater speed can be generated by moving the sparking implement at a greater rate, but the cost is less control over both the spark direction and sparking implement. Greater pressure friction can be generated by larger sparking implements, but the cost, again, is less control of both implement and spark direction.

If we want to increase the controllability of the sparking implement and the direction of the sparks, without using any mechanical means of controlling this process, such as in the flintlock musket, we need to reduce the speed and pressure that is needed to create a spark. To do this we need to reduce the combustion point of the sparking material, this was achieved by the invention of the Ferrocerium Fire Flint rod. Ferrocerium Fire Flint rod has the lowest combustion point of the three sparking methods stated, being around only 200°C, only double the boiling point of water.

Flint & Pyrite

Sparks that are generated from the oldest known method of producing sparks, i.e. Flint & Pyrites, are so cold, infrequent and small that only a very few natural tinder types can be effectively utilised, and even these need a great deal of preparation to get them to catch a spark and thence create an ember. It is difficult to imagine that this method was commonly used to create a fire when other methods for creating fire were more reliable and common. As far as fire starting methods go, the Flint & Pyrite method is quite haphazard, since even when a spark is created it will go where it please, and not always where you want it to go, also, whilst this method is not difficult to master it is difficult to get your tinder just right and therefore difficult to generate an ember successfully. The spark is near impossible to see in daylight and often you know that a spark has been created because your tinder begins to smoke. The Flint & Pyrite is also very dirty as the powder that is produces is black.

Flint & Steel

The next step up the evolutionary sparking ladder, are sparks generated from the Traditional Flint & Steel, such as the traditional hand forged ‘C’ Steel Strikers and ‘Oval’ Steel Strikers, the traditional Hudson Bay Tinderbox Standard / Deluxe / Copper / German Silver / Tin Plate, as well as the 1700 ‘Trapper’ Tinderboxand the 1790 ‘English’ Tinderbox, these sparks, by comparison to the Flint & Pyrite method are very hot, frequent and a whole lot larger, which enables them to hold onto the heat for longer and thus create an ember in a wider variety of natural tinder.

Ferrocerium Fire Flints

The most modern step in this evolutionary ladder is by creating sparks is from Ferrocerium rods. Ferrocerium is, by all comparisons, the most superior sparking method of all. It produces a shower of superhot sparks at around 3,100° Centigrade that is 5,600° Fahrenheit in old money, also the burning metal sparks last a great deal longer than any of its predecessors, and will thus ignite an amazingly large number of tinder types.

We would recommend the use of any one of our range of Shark-Tinderbox ‘PyroFlints™’, since these ferrocerium rods are manufactured to the highest standards of quality.

 

This video shows my son Jamie, who was 6-years old at the time, lighting a fire using a standard Ferrocerium Fire Flint, Char Cloth, Jute Tinder and a piece of Natural Flint (the Natural flint was not very sharp, which is why it took severalattempts to create a spark).

What Materials You Will Need

Tinder

The variety and types of tinder that can be used with Flint & Steel, for fire making, is a lot narrower than that used when making a fire with a modern Ferrocerium Flint, since the sparks generated by Flint on Steel are a whole lot cooler than those produced from the Ferrocerium Flint. Many types of tinder most suited for Ferrocerium Fire Flints are unsuitable for Flint & Steel; however, they can be upgrade by processing with chemical, such as Saltpetre, or by charring.

What makes good tinder?

Anything that will easily catch a spark, even if processing with chemicals or after charring is necessary, can be used as good tinder. Good tinder can be made, or found, just about anywhere, but the type and quality largely depends on the area that you either live in or are visiting.

One of the best natural types of tinder, which can be used with great success with both Flint & Steel as well as Ferrocerium Fire Steel rods is Amadou. Amadou is made from a fungus that grows on dead Birch trees where the weather is colder and on Beech trees where the weather is warmer. This fungus looks like a horse’s hoof and is therefore called the Horse’s Hoof fungus, or to give it its Latin name, Fomes formentarius.

Another couple of great types of tinder for use with ‘Flint & Steel’ as well as Ferrocerium is Natural Chaga Tinder Fungus and Char cloth. Char Cloth, which is simply a natural fibre, such as cotton, which has been burned in the absence of oxygen to drive off all of the combustible gasses and left to cool, what is left behind after processing is the black Char cloth. Wood punk, dry, soft, decayed wood, which has then been charred, as well as old firedogs will work quite well. The Cramp Ball, or Daldinia concentric, is very good as long as it is dry, but keeping it for a long time in a bag with other tinder can prove to be messy as the black, soot like, spores get everywhere.

You can of course use downy plant seeds, such as from the Poplar, Cat-tail, Clematis, Kapok, Rosebay Willowherb or Dandelion; these work really well with Ferrocerium, but they will often need to be compressed and charred, or processed with Saltpetre if used by Flint & Steel.

Kindling

Fine Kindling is the next step up from tinder; some very fine types of kindling can be used as tinder. This being the case the difference between tinder and fine kindling is a bit of a grey area, but for the purposes of this article we will refer to kindling as anything that can be used to turn an ember into a flame and accelerate the flame so that it can readily burn fuel, such as sticks and logs.

Good kindling will include, but is not limited to, all of the following and will very much depend on where you live and or are visiting:

  • Plant Downs (as already mentioned).
  • Dried grasses.
  • Outer bark from the Clematis, Honeysuckle, Red Cedar, Juniper and Silver Birch.
  • Inner bark from the Sweet Chestnut, Poplar, Oak, Lime, Willow, Silver Birch
  • Plant stems that have been dried and beaten, such as Stinging Nettles, Hemp, Flax.
  • Fungi, such as Amadou ( already mentioned, above) and Natural Chaga Tinder Fungus.
  • Feather Sticks, Maya Wood, Maya Dust and much, much more.

Some of these types of kindling, such as the Clematis or Maya-Dust, can be made into really great Fine Tinder, for use with Ferrocerium rods. Clematis bark, when buffed by rubbing a bundle of the bark peelings between the hands until they turn into a fluffy mass of fine, soft, fibres, will ignite directly into a flame when sparks from the Ferrocerium Fire Steel are used. The fine outer bark from the Silver Paper Birch, which looks like paper, hence its name, can be gently peeled from the tree and used directly as a kindling, again they easily turn directly into a flame when Ferrocerium sparks are used. Other types of bark can be scraped, with a sharp knife, into a small bundle of fine shavings that make ideal kindling.

Coarse kindling is made up of dried grasses, twigs, Feather Sticks and other combustible materials mentioned above that are not easily processed into finer kindling. Kindling, being made up of matchstick thickness size twigs (collected from above the ground so the twigs are dry), is place on a burning tinder bundle to accelerate the small fire so that it is hot enough to burn fuel.

Fuel

Fuel is anything that is burned on the fire, and ranges from, but is not limited to, your best Amadou tinder (if your life depends on it) to sticks and large logs, from charcoal to dung and from bottled gas to petrol. However, the type of fuel that you burn will, once again, depend on the place that you live and or visit. In many places or the world, where wood is in short supply or simply not available, the fuel of choice is made from dried herbivore animal droppings, or animal fat / blubber. In areas where wood is available, fuel is, initially, made up of pencil thickness sticks to arm thickness logs, and once a fire has built up a good head of steam, so to speak, even thicker logs to tree trunks can be used.

Assuming that you have collected a plentiful supply of, dry, fuel, the best and most efficient way to burn it, on an open fire, is to have plenty of air and plenty of heat. If any of these three basics is not met, you will find that the fire either goes out or you will be doing your best to frantically move out of the way of the copious amounts of thick chocking smoke that will be created.

Traditional Flint & Steel

The Flint

In the UK flint is quire readily available, it can be collected from most beaches on the south cost, although it is not the ‘Done thing’ to take stones from the beach and may even be illegal. Once you have obtained your flint nodule, you will want to knap it down to a manageable size, no bigger than the palm your cupped hand. This can be done with a hammer stone that can be held n the hand and used as a hammer; a hammer stone should be made from a stone that will not shatter when struck against the flint nodule; at a pinch you can use another piece of flint as a hammer stone. Please note: You should be careful when knapping flint, as shards of flint can cause real damage if they strike the eye, also you might want to wear glove as you will undoubtedly cut yourself…it is an occupational hazard.

The best shape of cutting edge for a flint that is to be used for striking a Steel, is one that looks like a cliff edge, when viewed from the side. It should be not more than around 90 degrees, and not less than around 20 to 25 degrees. As the cutting edge angle becomes larger it becomes stronger, but less sharp and as the cutting edge angle becomes shallower it becomes weaker, but sharper; a piece of flint that would be ideal for sparking would not necessarily be sharp enough for cutting meat, but a flint that would be ideal for meat cutting would most probably be too weak to be struck by a Steal and would simply shatter.

The flint needs to be large enough to be comfortably, but tightly, held between the thumb and fingers, so that you can control the angle and speed of a strike. If the flint is too large you will not have that proper control over the it, as is required; if the flint is too small it will not have enough weight to cut into the Steel and create a spark.

Once a piece of flint has been used a few times it starts to chip and therefore become blunt, it eventually dulls to the point that it will not cut into the Steel to generate sparks. By using another part of the flint you can temporarily overcome this problem, however, unavoidably and inevitably you will either need to find another piece of flint or try to rejuvenate one or all of the cutting edges. This can be done by holding the Steel loosely between the thumb and forefinger and then tapping at the dull cutting edge of the flint with the flat tip of the Steel. You will find that very tiny shards of flint will be chipped off the flint, creating a rejuvenated and sharp cutting edge.

The Steel

There are a myriad shapes and designs, when it come to the Steel, the classic and most common shapes , however, are the simple ‘C’ or ‘Oval’ shaped steel.

When it come to creating a spark any piece of hardened, high-carbon, steel can be used as a Steel for fire making. These can range from a piece of broken file, which make really good Steel, to an Alan key, to a custom designed hand forged Steel. All of them will have one thing in common…they are all made from high-carbon steel that has been correctly hardened.

Traditional Flint & Steel Methods of creating a spark

All of the methods that are demonstrated in this article are based on a right-handed person, left-handed people should simply exchange left for right or right for left.

In addition, unless you are just practicing creating an ember, you should have collected sufficient tinder, kindling and fuel together before you start; your tinder bundle should be kept dry and ready to accept the ember.

You can use the Flint & Steel in several ways:

The FIRST method is by directly strike the sparks into the open tinder bundle that has been placed on the ground or a platform, this method is usually know as the ‘Tinder Bundle Strike’ or ‘Flint on Steel Strike’ or ‘Drop Spark Strike’ or ‘Shower Strike’ method.

The SECOND method is to hold the tinder and Flint in one hand and strike the Steel against the Flint with the other, this called ‘Two Finger Strike’ or ‘Steel on Flint’ method.

Method One – The ‘Tinder Bundle Strike’ or ‘Drop Spark Strike’ or ‘Shower Strike’

Take your tinder bundle and place a good pinch of our chosen tinder in the middle and then place the tinder bundle on the ground next to your kindling. Holding the Steel in your right hand you will need to sharply strike one of the sharp edges of the flint down the steel at about a 20 to 30° angle, as if you were trying to shave off a small piece of steel with a glancing blow, the steel is held firmly in your left hand a couple of inches above the char cloth, so that all sparks are directed downwards and into the tinder that is nested in the tinder bundle. The closer you hold the steel to the tinder bundle the hotter the sparks will be when they land on the tinder. The down side to this is that you can so easily knock the tinder bundle flying sending bits of your precious tinder off in all directions. If done correctly, however, you will see a shower of sparks drop down into the tinder bundle, and hopefully one of them will have landed in the tinder (e.g. Amadou or Char cloth) to create an ember. Once the tinder has caught a spark and begins to glow you can place the Flint & Steel down and begin the process of turning the ember into a flame.

Method Two – The ‘Two Finger Strike’ or ‘Steel on Flint Strike’

This is my preferred method of using a Flint & Steel for fire making, since I feel that I have more control over the whole process.

With the Flint in your left hand you will need to place about a finger pinch of char cloth onto the flint shard, about 1 to 2mm from the top striking edge, making sure that the flint edge that you have chosen is also sharp. Whilst holding the char cloth firmly against the flint, without crushing it, with your thumb, and locking the Flint in place with your bent over forefinger, you should take the Steel, which is in your right hand, and sharply, but firmly strike the steel down against the flint edge as if trying to shave off the thinnest sliver of steel with a glancing blow. This glancing blow will cause a tiny slithers of steel to be scraped of the Steel surface with such force as to ignite them, and the momentum will carry these red-hot slither of burning steel towards the waiting Amadou or char cloth.

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Placing the tinder about 1 to 2mm from the edge of the natural flint.
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With the tinder in place the steel can be struck against the flint.
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Photo shows a piece of Amadou tinder fungus that has caught a spark and is nicely glowing.

 

A common tip is to place the Amadou or char cloth actually over the cutting edge of the flint and allowing the striking action of the Steel to cut through the tinder, any sparks generated should be created directly next to the freshly cut edge, which will, at least in theory, aid in the creating of the ember. This technique, however, can be a bit messy if using car cloth and can cause some of the tinder to be lost. Also, I have found that the very close proximity of the newly cut tinder to the cutting edge of the flint means that the sparks can be starved of air before they arrive, thus causing them to die before an ember can be formed.

Once a spark has caught the char cloth and begins to glow, place it in the previously prepared tinder bundle nest.

Sparking Methods with Modern Ferrocerium Fire Flint Rods

There are three distinct methods that can be used with a Ferrocerium Fire Flint Rod, such as the Shark Designs – PyroFlint™ range to generate sparks:

Method One – ‘Tinder Bundle Strike’ or ‘Steel on Flint Strike’ or ‘Shower Strike’ or ‘Drop Spark Strike’

Holding a Ferrocerium Fire Flint, such as the PyroFlint™ stationary and strike the cutting edge striker against the PyroFlint™, with the tinder under the PyroFlint™. This method is probably what we would think of as being the traditional way of making a fire with the spark method, however, in my opinion it is not as efficient as Method One, at either creating sparks or directing them. Other disadvantages, as far as I am concerned, are the major frustration that is caused when you accidentally crash your striking tool, or even the Ferrocerium rod, into your tinder, disintegrating a carefully created tinder bundle into a million bits that fly off in a hundred directions, and even when you are careful about controlling collisions between moving parts, many, if not most, of the sparks that you created will fly off into the firmament and land where they may, usually a considerable distance from the intended target. Another disadvantage with this method is that very sharp strikers, such as a knife, often just bite into the Ferrocerium rod halting the movement of the striker dead in its tracks, thus making the angle of attack quit critical if a shaving is to be taken off and still given enough energy to raise its temperature up to combustion point. The usual answer to this problem is to apply more striking force, which exacerbates the potential for a spectacular striker, or rod, to tinder collision. On the whole it is not my favourite method of creating sparks.

Method Two- ‘Two Finger Strike’ or ’Flint on Steel’

Use the PyroFlint™ against a stationary piece of sharpened steel, say a knife or a piece of glass etc. This method is very controllable allowing you to hold the tinder and sharp striking surface still, whilst creating the sparks by moving the Ferrocerium rod downwards towards the striker. Because you are holding the tinder against the cutting implement and striking the Ferrocerium rod against it, you can be more accurate with where the sparks will land, you also need less force to generate lots of sparks. This method, also, has the advantage of allowing you to create sparks with minimal wear on the sparking rod.

The simplest way to utilise this method is to place your tinder right next to the cutting edge and hold it in place by pinching the tinder and the cutting tool between your thumb and fingers of your left-hand (if you are right-handed). Taking the Ferrocerium rod in your right-hand and strike it down so that it does a controlled glancing blow against the cutting edge. You should see a shower of sparks fly past your tinder; at this point check to see if a spark has not landed on your tinder and it is already burning, if not try again. Keep your striking action controlled and just hard enough to create sparks, but not heavy enough to knock the tinder and cutting tool from your left-hand. I find this method to be most satisfactory and can usually create an ember on the first strike. You may need to play around with tinder thickness and distance from the cutting edge, but that is half the fun.

Also be careful that you do not miss and cut your finger on the exposed cutting edge.

Method Three – ‘Anchored Flint Strike’ (with variation ‘Thumb Pressure Strike – Anchored’)

Essentially this is the same method as shown on Method One, except that you are going to anchor certain aspects of the process to the ground. Pin / press the Ferrocerium rod, which should be in your left-hand, into the ground or fire platform as close to the tinder as you dare. Then with the sharp striking implement in your right-hand, press the striking hand into the ground so that the cutting edge is also pressing into the Ferrocerium rod. Slowly, using wrist action only, scrape the sharp cutting implement down the tip of the Ferrocerium rod, a maximum of about a quarter of the way up the rod, with sufficient pressure into the Ferrocerium rod, to cause a shower of sparks. Since you are not using a fast downwards scraping action to build up the energy to create sparks you will need to apply more pressure into the Ferrocerium rod than you would normally need, this can very easily cause the Ferrocerium rod to snap if you are not careful and start the scrape towards the middle of the rod. In addition, the slow forward momentum will cause any sparks that are generated to stay very close to the Ferrocerium rod and cutting implement, and not fly off, because of this you will need to keep both the Ferrocerium rod and striking implement quite close to the tinder.

This method almost prevents accidental collisions, since both of the hands are pressing against the ground and effectively have nowhere to go. The sparks are produced by sheer brute force, since you are slowly scrapping off a shaving whilst pressing quite hard against the Ferrocerium rod with the striker. If a collision does take place it is not always as destructive as in Method Two, but none the less can easily scatter loose tinder. This method allows a much more controlled shower of sparks to be directed into the tinder, and is therefore a massive improvement on Method Two.

A variation of ‘Anchored Flint Strike’ is the ‘Thumb Pressure Strike – Anchored’ which uses the left thumb, if you are right-handed, to generate the force of the Striker against the PyroFlint™ instead of the right wrist moving the Striker down the PyroFlint™.

Using the thumb as the powering force, allows you to shave off much larger shavings of PyroFlint™, however, due to the lack of speed with which these shavings are removed, there is less frictional heating of them, which means that the shavings may not as readily ignite into a super white-hot shower of sparks. When you do produce sparks, however, they tend to be bigger and longer-lived, which means that the tinder/tinder bundle is more likely to create an ember or even ignite directly into a flame – a direct flame is wholly dependent on the type of tinder being used.

The ‘Anchored – Thumb Strike’ also almost completely eliminates accidental follow through, since the whole action begins and ends with the push of the thumb against the Striker.

Method Four – ‘Pull Back Strike – Anchored’

Holding the knife, or any sharp cutting tool, in your right-hand with the blade away from you, press your knuckles into the ground to anchor the whole hand and knife. The cutting edge of the knife should now be about an inch or so from the ground and about 2 or 3 inches away from the tinder. Take the Ferrocerium Fire Flint in your left-hand and then place it under the knife’s cutting edge, as close to your right-hand as you can whilst still maintaining contact with the cutting part of the knife. Adjust both hands, if necessary, to get as close to the tinder as you dare. Whilst maintain the downward pressure into the ground with your right-hand making sure that your hand is firmly anchored and won’t move, sharply pull the Ferrocerium rod backwards, away from the knife. Pull the Ferrocerium rod towards you, whilst maintaining sufficient upwards pressure into the cutting implement to generate a shower of sparks. Checks to see if your tinder has caught any one of these sparks and, if not repeat the above instructions. If the sparks did not actually reach the tinder, or flew off in an obscure direction, you should move your right-hand a little closer to the tinder, or adjust the angle to the tinder and try again.

This method effectively leaves behind a shower of sparks, next to the tinder, as the left-hand that is holding the Ferrocerium Fire Flint rod is rapidly pulled away from the cutting implement or knife, and allows a much more controlled shower of sparks to be directed into the tinder. It is, therefore, a colossal improvement on Method Two, stated above.

Creating the Flame

Turning the Ember into a Flame

Creating the flame has to be the enjoyable climax to the whole fire starting procedure. It is the point when everything comes together and turns your tinder into a living flame.

Once you have created the ember by any of the methods shown above and that ember is nesting in the tinder bundle, you will need to carefully wrap the tinder bundle around the ember and gently, but firmly blowing onto the ember. Make sure that when you blow your breath does not contain any spittle, which could easily land on the ember and extinguish it. It is, also, a good idea to hold the tinder bundle above your head as you blow on to it, in that way all of the smoke that is being produced will not be blowing into your face, eyes and lungs. Also try to turn your back towards the prevailing wind so that any smoke that is produced is carried away from you and the wind is used to aid in the development of the ember. As you finish blowing the last remnants of air from your lungs and need to breathe in you should move the smoking tinder bundle downward and away from you, this will enable you to breathe in clean air and will also keep air running past the ember, which will help to keep it burning hotter. You don’t need to blow very hard just a steady exhalation of dry air carefully directed will do; it is always interesting to watch as a novice attempts this procedure as you will soon see them become quite dizzy. If the blowing becomes a little difficult you can just wave the tinder bundle around in a large circle about your shoulder, which will do the same thing as blowing, however it is a lot less controllable.

Once the tinder bundle is ready to burst into flames you will see that a thick greenish smoke starts to be produced, at this point you can blow harder and in quick short bursts, which will cause the greenish smoke to spontaneously combust into a glorious and most welcome flame. Once it is alight, you can give it a few more puffs, just too completely establish the flame and then place the burning tinder bundle into your waiting kindling or fire pit. You can then add more kindling to the flames, which will allow the fire to grow and the heat to build up ready for the addition of the fuel. Be careful not to over feed the fire at this early stage or you could simply put the fire out; add kindling and fuel as and when it is needed, until the fire has built up a strong ember base and the flames are strong enough for you to be less gentle with it.

Jute Rope Tinder Bundle

You can prepare a tinder bundle nest by unravelling the strands from the Jute rope and then moulding it into a small nest shape. Once you have produced an ember it can be carefully placed into the cupped part of the tinder bundle and gently blown into a flame.

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Using a piece of Jute for a tinder bundle.
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The jute has been teased apart and formed into a tinder bundle.
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small piece of Char Cloth has been placed about 1 to 2mm from the edge of the natural flint. A small piece of Amadou could just as easily been used.
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Practice aiming the Steel on the flint before the strike is made.
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Sparks will fly! Notice that the Char Cloth has caught one of the sparks and is glowing.
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The Char Cloth is placed in the tinder bundle. You can just see that it is still glowing.
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The tinder bundle is gathered around the glowing ember. By gently blowing on the ember it is encouraged to grow.
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The tinder bundle is hot enough to reach ignition point, so we have fire.

Remember: – Fire making skills needs to be practiced to be perfected.

Practice these skills with safety at the forefront of your mind.

 

 

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