Making Char Cloth / Char Fiber

(As featured in the October 2011 issue of Practically Seeking)

Char fiber

With cooler days and colder nights approaching, thoughts begin to turn to fire and staying warm. In a survival situation fire is life! As such, we have decided to devote the next few Skills of the Month to some Fire-making Tips and are starting with this segment on making char cloth. But we're not going to limit ourselves to only traditional cotton fibers!

What many people fail to realize is that virtually ANY plant-based fibrous material can be used.

As with all skills we teach, it is the Principle, not the Technique, that is most important. Char cloth (or Char fiber as I like to call it) is simply material that has essentially been reduced to pure carbon in an oxygen-free environment. Exposure to even very low temperature sources of ignition (e.g., a spark or a spot from a magnifying glass) will cause it to ignite readily.

Before the advent of matches, and in lieu of fire by friction, char cloth was the primary means of starting fire; particularly by Europeans. While there is much information available on the subject you do not typically see alternative fiber sources (particularly materials gathered off the landscape) or means of manufacture, which we will progress to in the coming months. Now keep in mind as you're trying this out that cotton cloth with flint & steel became the "standard" for a reason — it's easiest to use! But if you're stuck out on the landscape, or if you just want to try something new, it's a great way to stretch your skills!

Step-by-step Instructions on How to Make Char Cloth:

  1. Obtain any material that is 100% NATURAL cellulose fiber such as cotton cloth, jute fiber, shredded inner bark from a tree, "punky" wood from a stump, polypore fungus (shelf fungus from a tree), cattail down, fibers from dogbane, milk weed, nettles, or any other woody stalked plant.
  2. Natural plant-based fibers

  3. Twist any loose fibers into a tight ball. Solids such as polypores and punky wood can be used in small chunks.
  4. Roll loose fibers into a ball Tight ball of fibers Ready to char

  5. Place the material into an air tight, non-combustible container and close the lid tightly.  We are using an old stain can in the photos, but ANYTHING that creates an air tight environment will work. (More on that next time.)
  6. Place cloth and fibers in tin Close lid tightly

  7. Create or puncture a SINGLE small hole in the container so that gasses can escape. Don't forget this step, otherwise you might get a small explosion!
  8. Puncture lid Single hole in lid

  9. Place the container in, or on, a heat source. It will need to reach about 400 degrees for the process to work properly. (It was extremely windy outside on picture day, so we used the living room fireplace instead!)
  10. Place container in fire Heating Up

  11. After a couple of minutes you will observe a great deal of smoke escaping the hole — this is perfect. Leave the container exactly where it is and continue to expose it to the heat.
  12. Smoke escaping from hole Continue to heat

  13. Soon the container will cease smoking and you may see flame instead. Eventually the flame over the hole will die down and when there is only a small flame, this is an indicator the process is almost complete.
  14. Flame replaces smoke Flame dies to almost nothing

  15. Once the smoke and flame have COMPLETELY died away, remove the container from the heat source. DO NOT OPEN IT!  Allow the container to completely cool.
  16. Allow to cool

  17. Once the container is cool to the touch your char fiber is ready for use!  It can be stored in that container or transferred to another one where it will be kept undisturbed and dry. Remember, char fiber can be very fragile. 
  18. Cooled char fiber Ready to use or store

  19. When ready to use, extract a piece and expose it to a spark. (For the delicate fibers of bark or woody stalks it is best to spark down onto the fibers.) Place the lit char fiber in a tinder bundle and blow into flame!
  20. Expose to spark Blow into flame!


Until next time, enjoy the warmth of a comforting fire,
and Have Fun!

Want to learn more about using natural fibers?
Come on out to our
Making & Using Natural Cordage workshop on October 28th!