How many times have you been in the wilderness, needed to make a fire, but all your lighters are wet? If you are anything like me, that is probably too many. The other scenario that you may, inadvertently find yourself in, is when you have run out of gas and matches. Mainly in tidal areas or the woodlands. Now is the time that you need something else to use. Instead of fumbling about trying to find something to use, or rubbing two sticks together, you need a Fire piston. In this article, we are going to take a look at what a fire piston is, how it works, and when you should use it.
A fire piston, otherwise known as a fire syringe or slam rod fire starter, is an ancient device that originated in Southeast Asia. It has been a device for starting fires for many, many years. However, they are not a relic that needs to be banished to the realms of the museums just yet.
Description of a Fire Piston
The explanation of a fire piston is as simple as it is. It is a cylinder with a piston inside it. This simplicity in design lends itself brilliantly to the wilderness and outdoor use, as it is tough to break.
However, there is slightly more to it. The construction of the newest type of fire piston is usually from aluminum or stainless steel; however, these are not the only materials available. You can get them made out of wood, or even glass. Although these are not materials that I would advise that you buy, as wood can still get wet, and glass can break.
Here we have an image of a broken down fire piston:
You can see the various components that make up the fire piston.
- Cylinder. – On the left on the image is a tube; this is the cylinder. It is capped off at the other end that is slightly larger to help to hold it.
- Piston. – On the right, there is the piston. There is also a larger end to help hold it, and it includes both of the following items.
- O Ring. – The black ring on the piston is the rubber O ring. This ring seals the air into the cylinder between the capped end of the cylinder and the O ring.
- Kindling Holder. – In this image, you can see that the kindling is already alight. It is the orange ember in the piston.
How a Fire Piston Works
The basic principle of how they work is via compression. When you compress something, you are giving it energy. The energy that you are giving the fire piston, in this case, comes from your muscles. The fire piston is designed to compress air to the point at which kindling will ignite.
If you are wondering how air will ignite kindling, then let me explain two other common ways in which you may see air heated up when compressed:
- Bicycle pump. – A bicycle pump is probably one of the most common ways in which you can view this phenomenon. When you are inflating a tire, you are compressing the air to increase the pressure in your tire. As you increase that pressure, you will feel that the pump gets hot.
- A diesel engine. – A diesel engine is the most common way in which air compression is used to ignite something physically. The air inside the engine cylinder compresses so much that it is hot enough to ignite the diesel and push the piston back down.
In the case of a fire piston, the energy that you put into it with your muscles gives air between the O ring and base of the cylinder energy. As this energy has nowhere to go, the energy gets converted to heat. That heat then transfers into the kindling that you provide and ignites it.
Fire pistons usually have a pretty high compression ratio. So high in fact that they are generally higher than a diesel engine. A diesel engines compression ratio is about 20 to 1, and a fire piston is about 25 to 1. If you do not know what this means, then let me explain:
A compression ratio is simply the amount of air, by volume at atmospheric pressure, that is compressed into what space. So, for example, if you have a cylinder that will hold ten cubic centimeters, and you compress that air into an area that is 0.5 cubic centimeters, it has a compression ratio of 20 to 1.
A compression ratio that is this high can make a small volume of air heat up to approximately 350 degrees Celcius, or 660 Fahrenheit — providing that you do it correctly. This temperature is easily high enough to ignite the right material.
One thing that you have to remember is that although I have said that the energy has nowhere to go, it does. The heat energy can quickly transfer to the aluminum cylinder. But we will get into the use of the fire piston next.
How to Use a Fire Piston
So, now that you know how compressed air can light a piece of kindling let’s talk about how to do it.
The easiest way that we have found is to insert a small amount of char cloth into the end of the piston. (We will talk about char cloth in the next section). However, it does not have to be char cloth; it can be anything suitable for dry kindling. Here is a step by step instruction on how to use a fire piston:
- Insert Kindling. – Insert a small amount of kindling material into the end of the piston. The majority of pistons have holes in the center for inserting kindling. You may have to be careful with how much you put in there. If you put too much in there, there will be too much heat transfer throughout the kindling, stopping it igniting. Not enough, and the compression will shove the kindling into the hole, and you will not be able to insert it into the tinder very easily.
- Compress the air. – Insert the piston into the cylinder, being careful not to knock the kindling out. After you have inserted the piston into the cylinder, you will need to squeeze the two handles together. Ensure that you do this quickly. The speed of this is quite essential. As I said above, the heat can transfer into the metal of the piston and the cylinder quite promptly if you compress it slowly. If the heat transfers into the metal, it will make the lighting process harder, and take longer. Not to mention that it will start to get hot in your hands.
- Light the tinder. – Carefully remove the kindling and place it on a small amount of tinder to light it. If you are not comfortable with handling the kindling while it is hot, you can put it directly onto a piece of tinder. Remember to do this quickly though, as the heat will still transfer into the piston quite quickly.
- Ignite a tinder bundle. – Now that you have a lit piece of tinder, you can put it into a nest of wood and treat it as you would any other fire.
If the kindling does not light on the first try, then do not be afraid to try it again. It should get easier with subsequent attempts, as the heat capacity of the metal and kindling can only hold so much heat.
How to Make Char Cloth
As I have just mentioned, char cloth is the best to use for a fire piston. In this section, we are going to talk about how to make it. The process of making the cloth is quite simple. However, make sure to take care when you are doing it.
- Find a tin. – Find a small-ish, metal tin. There are a lot of people who use breath mint tins, but sweet tins or anything that has a metal lid on it will do. If you do not have a tin that has a metal lid, then I would suggest that you find one. However, if you do not have the time to find one, then you can use foil as a lid, so long as you make it tight.
- Make a small hole in the lid. – Use a nail or little drill bit to make a hole in the center of the cover. Ensure that it is a pretty small hole, you do not want any air to get into it, but you need to allow the gasses to expand and escape.
- Get some fabric. – This point may be the most critical part of making your char cloth. Ensure that you use a 100% natural fabric, such as cotton. You do not want any polyester or other human-made fibers in it as they will melt and ruin your attempts. (I have found that using an old but clean shirt is the best for this.
- Cut the fabric. – Cut the fabric just big enough so that it covers the bottom of your tin. If your tin is large, then try to aim around two-inch squared. You do not want them too big, or they will not be as easy to use in your fire piston, and you will have to cut them in the field.
- Put the squares in the tin. – Lay them on top of each other, ensuring that they are flat and that it is not tightly packed.
- Use a well-ventilated heat source, – I have found it best to do this outside on a windless day, on top of a camping stove. It allows for brilliant ventilation while you are still close enough to watch it. Make sure that the hole is on top.
- Smoke signals. – Now that you have it heating up, it will start to smoke. That is fine. What you need to do is wait until it stops smoking out of the hole. Now it is done. Allow it to cool, and inside you will find some ash, but mainly smaller pieces of char cloth ready to use with your fire piston.
Now that you have all of the information about fire pistons, how to use them, and the char cloth to go with it, you can probably see the benefits of having one. They are a fantastic accessory to have with you all of the time, as they are lightweight and nearly indestructible.
One thing that I would suggest that you do, however, is to keep a spare O ring with you. If you are having to resort to using a fire piston over anything else, then you will not want this to fail. It is for that same reason that I would suggest that you invest in a good one. You can buy them pretty cheaply if you want to. However, they may not last as long. In the time of need, you want something reliable to start a fire. A high-quality fire piston may be just for you.
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