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The Trouble with Sparks!

by Mark Hordon

Trouble Creating Sparks?

I am writing this article in the hopes that it may be of benefit to all that have encountered this all too common, most important difficulty, and have not yet discovered for themselves how it may be resolved. I am not talking about your financial or personal problems, but the major issue that is invariably encountered by all budding, and indeed experienced, pyromaniacs when practicing spark-based fire lighting techniques.

The ideas discussed in this article apply to all spark-based fire lighting techniques and will hopefully encourage many who would simply become disillusioned with this tried and tested fire making technique not to just give up, but to persevere and master it.

The ability to create spark-based fires is becoming ever more popular within the Bushcraft, Survival and Outdoor communities. With this rise in popularity, budding pyromaniacs will increasingly encounter certain specific problems that will undoubtedly put some people off mastering this wonderful technique, causing them to, mistakenly, believe that this form of fire lighting is best left to others or the experts.

I will, hopefully, try to convince these doubters that it is not always themselves that are at fault, but it can often be down to the tools that they may be using. This, most definitely, is a case of a worker having the absolute right to blame his tools‼!

After having read this article you should be able to resolve a couple of the most common issues you may have had with spark-based fire lighting without a second thought, added to this you will still be able to blame your tools should you still fail to create a lovely shower of big fat hot sparks!

The failure to create sparks from any of the spark-based fire lighting techniques such as Natural ‘Pyrite & Flint’, Traditional ‘Flint & Steel’ and Modern Ferrocerium Flint Rods can of course be down to user naivety and inexperience. However, the problem is massively compounded when inexperience, along with the poor technique are combined with ineffective or useless sparking tools. The two former negatives when combined with the latter can all too often spell failure, which naturally develops into despondency, causing many to belief that spark-based fire lighting is an impossible task, best left to others.

The inability to create sparks when using modern ferrocerium rods should be next to impossible, since pyrophoric alloys are manufactured for the sole purpose of easily making super hot sparks and plenty of them. It is a prerequisite that pocket gas and petrol lighters should ideally light first time, most of the time. The formula for manufacturing ferrocerium rods has pretty much been perfected over the last hundred years, by ferrocerium and lighter manufacturers, so that they easily and efficiently create sparks without excessive effort. Problems only seem to arise when the excessively flexible muscles and bones of the human body take the place of the ridged and inflexible mechanical devices that are normally used when generating sparks.

The concept of producing a spark that will land on a piece of tinder creating an ember for fire lighting is simple in theory, however the ability to create reliable quantities of sparks that actually land on a piece of tinder and then create an ember is another matter. Luckily, for us the learning curve for this method of fire making is quick and easy to learn and then practice. When a wisp of knowledge, a morsel of practice, a smidgen of experience and a few pieces of good kit are combined together, it is very unlikely that failure is the outcome. With these four elements in place our chances of reliably creating sparks exponentially grows. We humans must all bear in mind that we can never be as efficient at performing certain manual tasks when compared to the same tasks performed by mechanical devices and must , therefore give ourselves a modicum of leeway.

To the point then, the problems that most people encounter when using modern ferrocerium rods, or indeed any spark-based fire lighting technique, without the aid of a mechanical device, usually occurs for a few common reasons, namely: - Inexperience, Incorrect and, or Poor Technique and, or Ineffective and, or Useless Tools.

Inexperience.

Knowledge only comes with Experience and practice, which is usually only obtained through either ‘Trial and Error’ and or through the guidance and experienced of others.

Incorrect and, or Poor Technique.

Learning to do something by ‘Trial and Error’ can easily develop into poor and or incorrect technique. Without dogged persistence, the wisdom to invest in loss and a desire to perfect an idea by learning and relearning from our mistakes, we humans are notoriously good at making bad choices that in turn can quickly become a bad habit.

The fastest and most efficient way for humans to learn to learn something is through the guidance of those that have more experienced and knowledge than us and then diligently practicing what we have learned.

If you would like to know more about the wide variety of useful techniques that can be used with spark based fire lighting please read my article ‘Making Fire From Sparks’.

Ineffective and, or Useless Tools.

Before I begin the main reason for writing this article, I would like to make a distinction between two key components used to create sparks in spark-based fire lighting, namely the ‘Striker’ and the ‘Scraper’. I would like to point out, although I cannot substantiate this, that the ‘Striker’ was so named, because it was the ‘Striker’ that was probably more usually struck against the ‘Scraper’ and not the other way around. Striking a spark into a tinderbox that contained a large surface area of tinder is a more reliable way of obtaining an ember, especially if the tinder is in a fragile or powdered form. However, for those familiar with spark-based fire making methods, it is not always fixed in stone which of the two components is in fact struck against the other. It is simply a question of which is most appropriate technique to use at the time that the sparks are required.

  • The ‘Striker’ is the item that is going to have small shavings of metal, removed from it by the ‘Scraper’.
  • The ‘Scraper’ is the item that is going to shave off small pieces of metal from the ‘Striker’.

In the case of the Traditional ‘Flint & Steel’ it is the ‘Steel Striker’ that is the ‘Striker’ and the ‘Natural Flint’ that is the ‘Scraper’. The Natural Flint shaves, or scrapes, off minute shavings of metal from the surface of the Steel Striker that become hot enough to spontaneously combust in air, thus creating the sparks. This is also true of modern ferrocerium flint sparking rods, since it is the ferrocerium rod itself that is the ‘Striker’, whilst the tool that is being used to scrape off the metallic fragments is the ‘Scraper’.

The use of ineffective and, or useless tools will always diminish good technique, no matter how practiced and experienced we are. However, with more practice and more experience we can learn to compensate and overcome the problems that befall us when our tools are not up to scratch.

Assuming that it is not our lack of experience, or any wanting in our technique that we are unable to create sparks, we can usually, 100 percent of the time, squarely lay all of the blame for the lack of sparks on the ‘Scraper’. To be concise, it is usually always the fault of the ‘Scraper’ for any lack of sparks when using this technique and not ours.

As a side point, when using traditional ‘Flint & Steel’, any problems not related to poor technique, inexperience, lack of knowledge or the condition of the ‘Scraper’ will undoubtedly be due to the type of steel that was used in the Strikers manufacture. Steel Strikers that are not made from High Carbon Steel, are made from High Carbon Steel but have not been properly hardened or that have lost their hardness in some way, will simply not create sparks, no matter how good our knowledge base, our experience, our time in practice or the condition the ‘Scraper’ is in.

Having made the statement that it is almost always the fault of the ‘Scraper’ for our failure to create sparks, we can look for the main reason why this would be the case. The answer to this dilemma is so simple that it may be hard for you to believe … the ‘Scraper’ is probably not sharp enough! It really is that simple!

A Cutting Edge Issue

The inability to create sparks when using spark-based fire lighting techniques is usually because the ‘Scraper’ does not have an adequate cutting edge. This all too simple principle should be at the forefront of your mind when no sparks are being produced during spark-based fire lighting.

During the 40 plus years that I have been involved in Camping, Survival and Bushcraft, I have only ever encountered spark production problems that are not related to weather conditions, when the ‘Scraper’ I was using was dull, or became dull through prolonged use. It was a long road, but it became a habit to always check out the cutting edge of the ‘Scraper’, whenever I fail to create a spark, even if I fail to achieve the spark on the first strike that I attempt.

Speed and Force

When a ‘Scraper’ is not as sharp as it could or should be, so that it does not readily slices off the small metal slithers from the ‘Striker’ that are needed to create sparks, your first thought is to probably compensate for the lack of sparks by increasing the speed and the force of your striking blows. In other words, you may mistakenly believe that to achieve the same results as you would with a sharp ‘Scraper’ you have to hit the ‘Striker’ harder and faster than before. Whilst striking a ‘Striker’ with greater speed and force doe in fact generate more and bigger sparks it is still not always the best technique to apply in all situations. The down side of this obvious technique is that because the human body is made from flesh and blood, and not made from precision ground metal machine parts, it is prone to massive increases in deviational inaccuracies as either the ‘Scraper’ or ‘Striker’ is accelerated towards the other.

When a ‘Scraper’ is dull, requiring us to use extra speed and increased force to create a spark, it is inevitable that inaccuracies in striking angles and vectors will also increase. These inaccuracies can lead to a serious strike misalignment, between the two items, causing the one to miss the other at the desired point of maximum sparking contact, which may well result in no sparks being produced at all.

Overcoming the Obvious to Resolve the Problem.

When the obvious technique that we naturally turn to compensate for the reduction in sparks, becomes excessive and prolonged, it will simply ceases to work altogether. When it does, we tend to blame ourselves for our lack of success and not the tools we are using. The need for a sharp ‘Scraper’ is, therefore, of paramount importance if success is to be virtually guaranteed.

Producing sparks for spark-based fire lighting, efficiently, easily and reliably requires us to always have in mind that “The sharper the ‘Scraper’ the easier it will be to produce sparks!” and conversely “The blunter, or duller, the ‘Scraper’ is, the less sparks will be produced.” Pushing this analogy to the extreme, a ‘Scraper’ that effectively has no cutting edge, will not cut into the ‘Striker’ and therefore remove metallic shavings that will spontaneously combust, which means that there will be no sparks to create an ember and therefore a fire.

The simple solution to this common problem can be stated thus, “When your ‘Scraper’ begins to dull and not produce many sparks, either sharpen it, replace it or put up with snide remarks!”

What Type of ‘Scrapers’ are the Best?

This may seem obvious to you, based upon what I have already highlighted above, but if the ‘Scraper’ is not harder than the ‘Striker’, it will simply not shave off metallic filaments from the surface of the ‘Striker’, and without the metal filaments you will not get any sparks.

There is a whole world full of great ‘Scrapers’ out there that can be used to create sparks for spark-based fire lighting, both manmade and natural. Amongst them are Natural Flint or Chert, Manmade or Natural Glass, and other hard crystalline stones, such as Quartz.

There is a general rule of thumb that can be applied when looking for natural stone type ‘Scrapers’, and that is to tap the stone with another stone.

  • If the potential ‘Scraper’ stone creates a nice higher pitched ringing sound it will most probably be hard, dense and glassy, and therefore suitable for use as a ‘Scraper’. Stones of this nature can usually be knapped, so that a new cutting edge can be readily created when the old one has become dull, damaged or lost. Knapping is a skill like any other; it should be learned and practiced if disappointment is not to be your aim.
  • If, however, the stone you are tapping with another stone created a dull thud type of sound, it is most probably unsuitable for use as a ‘Scraper’, since it will probably be too soft and crumbly to shave off any metallic shavings from the ‘Striker’.

Any ‘Scraper’ that can be used with traditional ‘Flint & Steel’ to create sparks can also be used on modern ferrocerium rods; however, the reverse is sadly not always the case. This is due to the fact that the Steel Striker used in traditional ‘Flint & Steel’ is made from High Carbon Steel, which is considerably harder than modern ferrocerium rods and therefore requires a much harder type of ‘Scraper’.

Here are some examples of ‘Scrapers’ that can be used against modern ferrocerium flint rods. They can be such things as Hardened High Carbon Steel such as Files, most Knives, Scissors, Axes and Hacksaw Blades, Stainless Steel Cutting Tools, Tungsten Tools and Modern Ceramic Cutting Tools.

Built to Last?

To create sparks, by whatever means, whether by ‘Pyrite & Flint’, traditional ‘Flint & Steel’ or by the modern Ferrocerium flint rods, the ‘Scraper’ used has to be, by necessity, considerably harder than the ‘Striker’ used. The greater the gap in hardness levels between ‘Scraper’ and ‘Striker’ the better, enabling the ‘Scraper’ to tolerate the repeated strikes with more durability.

The long and the short of it all is, however, that the ‘Scrapers’ should always be made from a material that is both hard and sharp if any sparks are to produce. And by definition any material that is sharp and then struck against another hard material, is going to take a real beating. Whilst it is usually the ‘Striker’ that comes of worst with each strike - hence the sparks - treating any ‘Scraper’ in such a brutal way will always take its toll. In other words, the ‘Scraper’ will not stay sharp for long.

It is not hard to see that the pounding that the cutting edge of any ‘Scraper’ will take, requires that it be replaced and or sharpened on a very regular basis. Hardened steel will eventually dull and natural flint and other hard stones will quickly chip.

It is important, but sad fact that in the world of spark-based fire lighting, sharpness is an essential, but all too fleeting necessity.

Other Points of Concern.

There are a few other points that well are worth mentioning, but should be fairly obvious to most anyone who is aware of environment.

  • Bad weather is a real spark-based fire lighting killer, one drop a rain on your ‘Flint & Steel’, ferrocerium rod, flying spark, or glowing ember can literally ruin your day. “Always keep your powder dry!” was once the saying of the day when flintlock muskets and other black powder armaments were the main weapons of choice. This saying, with a little modification, is just as important today when practicing the art of fire making in the great outdoors. By replacing the word “Powder” for “Flint”, “Ember” or “Spark”, you will soon get the idea.
  • An unwanted gust of wind can blow away a spark, burn out an ember or snuff out a flame just as easily as a drop of water can.
  • Whilst extreme cold weather is less of a concern than the previous two fire lighting enemies, it will none the less suck the heat right out of a weak spark, embryonic ember or small fire with the speed and efficiency of a fire extinguisher. It is always a good idea to always keep, fire-making tools dry and warm on cold, wet or windy days if they are to be utilised with maximum efficiency, when creating fire.

Issues with your PyroFlint™?

To say that Ferrocerium flint rods are notoriously brittle, is an understatement, which is why we gave the PyroFlints™ in our ‘Full Metal Jacket’ range of ferrocerium rod flint strikers a brass casing; a ‘Full Metal Jacket’ as it were. The brass ‘Full Metal Jacket’ casing that surrounds the ferrocerium rods prevents them from snapped and helps prevent them from corrosion.

Some users of our PyroFlint™ ‘Full Metal Jacket’ range will notice that the smallest of the range, the 3.0mm ‘Full Metal Jacket’ PyroFlint™ may require a slightly better technique to use it efficiently. This is because the brass casing, although the same thickness as the casings used in the larger sizes of PyroFlints™, is proportionately thicker due to the smaller diameter of the flint rod. Unfortunately, this is the price that is paid to keep the small diameter of the PyroFlint™ from snapping when excessive force may be used. If the 3.0mm ‘Full Metal Jacket’ PyroFlint™ flint rod were to be use without its ‘Full Metal Jacket’, it would be prone to snapping, thus rendering it a potentially useless fire lighting tool unless used in a mechanical lighter of some kind.

When encountering spark production problems in any of our range of ‘Full Metal Jacket’ PyroFlints™, that cannot be put down to the sharpness of the ‘Scraper’ that is, it is usually due to errors in the striking action technique being used by the handler. The error is usually due to the ‘Scraper’ striking the PyroFlints™ brass casing and not the ferrocerium rod inside the ‘Full Metal Jacket’ brass casing. If this is the case then you will need to aim the strike better, since brass is a metal that does not create sparks, making it the metal of choice in gunpowder factories.

Under normal operational circumstances the brass casing that surrounds the PyroFlints™ ferrocerium rod should automatically be removed as the PyroFlint™ is being used. This is because any ‘Scraper’ that is hard and sharp enough to create sparks, when used with a modern ferrocerium flint rod, will most definitely be hard and sharp enough to easily remove the soft metal brass casing that is protecting the flint rod. Occasionally, however, it may become necessary to remove excess brass casing from the striking surface of the from the ferrocerium rod, this can be accomplished with a fine toothed file, or by rubbing the PyroFlint™ against an abrasive rock or stone, or by scraping it away with a knife etc. However, if more of the brass casing is removed than is necessary to allow the ‘Scraper’ free access to the ferrocerium rod, it may leave the ferrocerium rod overly exposed and weakened, which may result in the ferrocerium rod snapping if excessive force is used when creating sparks.

Snapping is problem that is encountered even with thicker styles of ferrocerium flints rods, especially in cold weather conditions and, or they are dropped onto a hard surface. Careful handling of any ferrocerium rod, no matter how thick the diameter is a precaution best developed quickly, if you want to maximise the life of this precious fire lighting resource.

Conclusion.

Increasing the level sharpness of the ‘Scraper’ proportionally decreases the need for higher speed and greater force when making a strike against a ‘Striker’. You will see a dramatic increase in spark production with an increase in the ‘Scrapers’ sharpness.

Decreasing the speed and the force needed to produce sparks, because the ‘Scraper’ is nice and sharp, will dramatically increases the accuracy of the ‘Scraper’ against the ‘Striker’, or vice versa. Increased accuracy enables you to place the ‘Scraper’ to the ‘Striker’ at just the right place, with just the right angle and just the right amount of power to both maximise spark production and increase the life of the ‘Scrapers’ cutting edge.

Always Carry Several Means of Creating Fire

Common sense and personal/group safety should require you to never knowingly put yourself, or others, into an outdoor survival situation without the proper training and equipment. Therefore, to carry only one source of fire making equipment on your person should be considered folly, anyone foolish enough not have at least two reliable, tried and tested backup method of creating fire is someone who should probably not be out in an artificially created survival situation, in the first place.

I would also strongly recommend that anyone who wants to spend time in the field should always familiarise themselves with all of their equipment. Understand and practice how each piece of equipment works and is use. And, make your initial practice sessions in a safe and secure environment, before you venture forth to any location or situation that is potentially unsafe and or life threatening.