Harry Couldn’t Light a One-Match Fire

I started a lot of fires while growing up. With a woodstove in the kitchen for cooking and for heat, lighting a fire came natural to me. I lit fires in the backyard, at campsites and in the woods when we weren’t supposed to. I had my fingers burned a few times, witnessed someone almost start a major forest fire and saw the results of holding a lighter over a discarded vehicle gasoline tank to see if it held gas (but I won’t mention any names, big brother). I learned my lessons by doing and by watching others.

When my nephews and nieces came along, I taught them how to make a one-match fire. It was easy because, after all, we had matches or a lighter. The hard way to light a fire came when one of my brothers joined Scouts. He had constructed a wooden platform with a carved indent large enough to fit the end of a pointed stick he had peeled. He recruited me – the tomboy who thrived on adventure – to help him get his fire-starting badge.

At first, my job was to hold the board still while he spun the stick between his hands. Many have seen this done: turn a stick quickly enough against wood to create a spark and ignite the fine shavings – tinder – near the tip. If you’ve ever tried this, you know how impossible it is.

My brother’s hands soon tired and we switched positions. Believing we couldn’t get the stick to move fast enough, we created a bow contraption where the string looped around the stick. Moving the bow back and forth in a sawing motion spun the stick faster than our hands ever could. I can’t remember if we ever started a fire – I don’t think we did – but we managed to turn the wood black where the pieces constantly rubbed together.

Now imagine tossing a character, let’s call him Harrison, Harry for short, into a traditional fantasy novel or into a forest of 1723 Scotland and getting him to start a fire. What would he use? A lighter? Nope, no such thing back then. Matches? Sorry, they weren’t invented until about 1827 and weren’t commonly used until a few decades later.

Harry could opt for the stick and wood method my brother and I tried, but he’d have to be crazy? Forget the movie scenes where Indians did this. I don’t think anyone used it unless they were absolutely desperate. Instead, to light a fire with some ease in all sorts of conditions Harry would use flint and steel or pyrites. This was the typical fire starters from Roman to mediaeval times.

If Harry lived as a caveman, he’d have started a fire with flint and pyrites. If he was born in the Iron Age, his father would have taught him to use flint and steel. In either case, a sharp edge was shaped on the flint for striking. The pyrites or steel was then struck against the sharp edge of the flint, creating sparks (pieces of burning steel) which rained upon the tinder, igniting a small fire. Care was taken to transport this flame to light a larger fire or candle.

In a semi-civilized world, a blacksmith would have twisted the piece of steel into a D shape so it could be gripped for better striking. This firesteelwas a piece of tempered carbon steel. If Harry was prepared he’d use charcloth (a fabric made from vegetable fibre (jute, cotton) and previously charred to give it a low ignition temperature) as tinder.

Tinder Box Tibert
A tinderbox from about 1750 to 1820, England.

In the 1800s, a rotating metal wheel was invented to produce sparks easily. This wouldn’t do for travelling, so Harry would opt for the tinderbox: a small container holding flint, firesteel and tinder. The tinder might be charcloth or a fibrous material such as dried grass, straw or thin shavings.

If Harry didn’t possess flint, he’d have to find a hard rock, such as quartzite, to use instead. He might use a knife, dagger or some other piece of steel in place of firesteel to ignite his tinder.

If Harry didn’t have fire-starting equipment – flint, steel, rocks – he might use a magnifying glass or the lens from his spectacles – he did wear glasses didn’t he? He could only do this on a sunny day of course. In a pinch in colder temperatures, he could craft a lens from ice, but it must be clear ice and polished to sparkle.

Before you get your characters to light a fire, perhaps you should try a few of these methods to see which best suits him or her. You’ll be able to describe in detail how they started their fire.

2 thoughts on “Harry Couldn’t Light a One-Match Fire

  1. A facinating read!

    Also, it made me think of the movie “Castaway” with Tom Hanks. His character struggles to build a fire, then when he finally does he runs around the beach yelling, “I have made fire!”

    Christi Corbett


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