Fire Without Matches – Fail-proof techniques (Step by Step)

Mankind’s greatest achievement is the “invention” of fire, and our entire evolution was possible with the help of fire. Few things are more essential to survival than fire, and making fire without matches should be one of your survival skills.

If the cutting edge was man’s first tool, then his second was no doubt fire.

Warming shelters, scaring off predators, hardening wood points for spears, baking clay pots, cooking meals, preserving fish and meat with smoke, hollowing out logs for canoes, the list of fire’s uses in primitive societies would have been endless.

So what would happen if, through a natural disaster, war, or economic collapse, we were forced to resume a semi-primitive agrarian lifestyle?

More to the point, how long could we heat our homes and cook our meals if matches (or butane lighters) were no longer available?

Think long-term

Wilderness survival manuals are full of fire starting techniques that work provided you have the right materials combined with perfect conditions and a lot of luck. The problem, as I see it, is that few of those writing survival manuals have ever had to repeat these procedures several times a day year-round.

For a matchless fire starting method to be practical, it needs to be simple, quick, and easily accomplished with common materials. Given we are talking about a long term survival scenario rather than a “lost in the woods” situation well have a couple of advantages. First well be able to plan our actions much farther in advance, preferably before our match supply runs dry. Second, we’ll have many more basic raw materials to work with than can be easily picked up in the wilds.

Strike A Fire

Fire without matches using flint and steel

The principal means of starting fire for European cultures over the last 1,000 years (possibly longer) has been flint and steel. Most of us have heard references to early American pioneers using this method, but if you’re like me, you probably thought it was a long lost art. I suppose it would have been if it wasn’t for the modern survivalists and the Buckskinning movement. Buckskinners do their best to recreate life in the 18th and early 19th century frontiers.

Building the flint and steel fire has become one of the sporting events common to Buckskinning rendezvous. Because of this, flint and steel sets and the knowledge required to use them are available to anyone who wishes to learn the technique.

The four basic items needed to start a fire with flint and steel are flint or other suitable rock, fire steel, something capable of catching sparks, and tinder. Of these items, the most critical and difficult to obtain is the spark catching material. The most common spark catching material used with flint and steel has long been charred cotton and linen cloth. Both of these are historically correct, Lewis and Clark, for instance, carried supplies in linen sacks that were recycled into charred cloth.

Recommended reading: The Basics Of Starting And Maintaining A Campfire

Char cloth

Char cloth is produced by heating it in a low oxygen environment so that it becomes something similar to charcoal rather than burning to ash.

Place the cloth in a metal can with a tight-fitting metal lid and punch a small hole in the lid. Now set the can on fire and watch for smoke escaping through the hole. When the smoke decreases, make sure to slightly remove the can and stick a nail in the hole while the can cools. If the cloth is a dark brown, it wasn’t allowed to heat long enough. If the cloth breaks down at the slightest touch, it was heated too long. The cloth used needs to be 100 percent free of synthetics and dye with the heavier thicknesses working best.

Though charred cotton cloth works fine, I tend to believe under the scenario we are discussing, even rags will be too valuable to burn.

The next question is usually, “So what did the mountain men and Indians use when char cloth wasn’t available?” Survival manuals normally list things like dry grass, shredded tree bark, cattail down, fungus, and lint from your pocket. Feel free to try any of the above that suits your fancy, but I seriously doubt you’ll have any luck catching a spark. What does work is very rotten punk wood charred in the same manner as cotton cloth.

Char Cloth
Making Char Cloth

By rotten, I mean wood decayed to the point it has the texture of a sponge and can be broken off a log with your bare hands. Maple is said to have been the preferred punk in pioneer days, but I have also had good luck with red alder. It’s probably best to gather a number of different rotten woods from your own particular location and see what firewood works best for you.

Charred punk wood is not as consistent as cotton cloth, one batch may catch sparks off the steel at the first blow and the next not at all. This is not to say the charred punk wood that doesn’t catch sparks is useless, as I will go into later in the article. With practice, you’ll soon have a feel for just how decayed the wood needs to be and how long to char it. Once a spark catches on charred punk wood, it is next to impossible to extinguish without water, and it seems to burn hotter than cotton char.

Modern copies of pioneer fire steels are available online. Most are shaped like small bows and fit over two, three, or four fingers depending on size. How well the “strike a light” sparks depends to a certain degree on the skill of the blacksmith forging it.

The steel is struck against the sharp edge of a hard stone which shaves off extremely fine splinters of metal and heats them white-hot by friction. The traditional stone used is flint because it is both very hard and breaks into keen-edged fragments. There are other stones that will work as well, particularly the quartz-based minerals, chert, petrified wood, etc. Look for any stones that break into relatively flat sections with sharp edges. As a rule, few of these stones will hold an edge as well as flint, but they can be broken or chipped to restore the cutting surface.

Strike a fire

To strike a fire, hold the charred material on top of the flint close to the edge and strike the stone with a long sweeping downward swing of the steel. Cotton char cloth can be wrapped around the flint edge, and the steel struck through it. When a spark falls in the char, a small glowing spot will appear. Blow gently on this spot, and it will rapidly spread through the fabric or punk.

Charred material will glow, but it doesn’t produce an open flame, so starting a fire requires one more step. Lay the glowing char in a “bird’s nest” of fine dry tinder: Shredded paper, grass, leaves, cedar bark all work well. Now gently blow on the ember till the tinder bursts into flame.

Many old-time tinder and tobacco boxes have a small magnifying glass built into the lid for fire starting. On sunny days I have found using the “burning glass” on a piece of char is a very easy way to obtain fire. This is one of those uses for charred punk wood that doesn’t work with flint and steel as the magnifying glass can concentrate heat longer than a tiny steel spark. Again, once the char is glowing, it’s a simple matter to light dry tinder.

Fire without matches using a bow and drill

My last “fire without matches” technique is the bow and drill friction fire. Practically every survival manual describes this method though most don’t sound especially optimistic that it will work under survival conditions.

In theory, the materials needed can be picked up almost anywhere, but in reality, without the right tools, fire can be a pretty iffy thing. Again we will have a strong advantage over the lost in the woods survivor, we can plan ahead and have the needed raw materials stockpiled.

The first item required is a bow. This can be about any section of sap-ling roughly 30 inches long by ½  to ¾ inches thick. Ideally, it should have a little bit of flex but nothing like an arrow casting bow.

Bow And Drill

Next, we need a drill, or preferably a number of drills, as these tend to wear out quickly. For this, we want bone dry relatively softwood without pitch or oil. Western red cedar rates as my favorite, but I have also had good luck with red alder and willow. Other woods to try are white cedar, cottonwood, birch, aspen, and poplars.

Cut these about 6 to 8 inches long, strip the bark off, and whittle them down to ½ to ¾ inch in diameter. Round one end with your knife and make a blunt point on the other. After notching the ends of the bow tie a heavy cord on leaving just enough slack to wrap the cord around the drill. I use nylon boot laces, but it’s best not to use the ones out of your boots as this procedure will wear them out fairly quickly.

Now we need a flat plank 2 to 3 inches wide and ½ to ¾ inches thick for use as a fireboard. This should be made from one of the woods listed for fire drills. Cut a triangular notch roughly ¼ inch into the fireboard and then gouge a small hole at the point of the V. When the drill is spun in this hole, it will quickly wear a drill diameter hole into the wood. Make sure this hole is far enough back that it doesn’t overlap the edge of the fireboard.

The last item required to complete the fire bow and drill is actually the hardest to obtain in the wilds. This is the bearing block the head of the drill spins in. The less friction between the bearing block and the drill head, the easier the drill spins, which in turn makes fire much more certain. In the past, hollowed out stones, hardwood knots, and carved bones were used, but none of these items are as good as a one-ounce whiskey shot glass.

Under the fireboard, place something flat and dry to catch the glowing ember when it forms. At home, this can be a piece of heavy cardboard or plywood, in the wilds, a section of tree bark. Kneel down on your right knee and place your left foot on the fireboard close to the drill notch. Wrap the cord once around the drill and place the point in the hole you cut at the base of the notch. Now place the shot glass over the end of the drill and lock your left wrist up against your left leg.

Read next:  Making A Proper Campfire In The Wild – 10 Campfire Designs To Build

While applying moderate downward pressure to the shot glass make long smooth back and forth sweeps with the bow. If too much pressure is applied to the shot glass, the drill will bind, but if too little is applied, there will be inadequate friction to start the fire. This may sound complicated, but a little bit of practice will quickly show you how much pressure is needed.

As the bow moves back and forth, the drill spins in the hole. In a very short time, there should be smoke rising from the drill hole and a wood dust pile forming in the notch. Watch the sawdust pile, and when it seems to be smoking of its own accord, carefully lift the drill out of the hole. If the sawdust continued to smoke, there is an ember hiding in the center of the pile. Relax for a minute, and the ember will gradually burn its way through the pile.

Now you can either apply tinder to the ember and gently blow it into a flame or light a chunk of charred punk wood from the sawdust. Given the pile is hard to move around and is fairly delicate to blow on, I prefer using charred punk wood as the next step. Again this is a great use of punk wood that doesn’t work with flint and steel.

Assuming you have the right materials, the most common problem is getting the right depth and width on the notch. Too shallow a notch and the sawdust will form a pile around the rim of the drill hole. Too narrow a notch, and the sawdust forms a thin stack that doesn’t have the mass needed to feed an ember. Too wide and the sawdust forms a wide shallow pile. As with most skills, constant practice will soon teach you what is needed.

The time to start thinking in terms of making fire without matches is sometime before your match supply runs out. Collect and store tinder, punk, and suitable wood long before they become a necessity. By the time they are needed, they will have dried and been much easier to work with, thus making the transition much easier. Char your supply of punk wood while you still have matches and then use it to extend the life of your match supply.

I would also recommend two books on the subject. The first covers flint and steel, Making Sure-Fire Tinder, by David S. Ripplinger. The second covers the fire-bow, Primitive Fire Methods, by Adam Cogan.


Master the techniques listed in this article, and you will always be able to create fire without matches, and you will have one of the most basic tools, fire, available to you. Just as it has been since the dawn of time, few things are more essential to survival.

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