Char cloth

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A campfire can be used to make char cloth.
Char Cloth
Thermal properties
Upper working temperature455 °C
Lower working temperature349 °C

Char cloth, also called char paper, is a material that is used as tinder when lighting a fire and is the main component in a tinderbox. It is a small swatch of fabric made from a natural fibre, such as linen, cotton or jute, that has been converted through the method of pyrolysis into a slow-burning fuel of very low ignition temperature. Pyrolysis is defined as "a thermochemical decomposition of organic material at elevated temperatures in the absence of oxygen”.[1] Although this material is usually made from swatches of organic fabrics, campers and outdoor enthusiasts have also discovered that a similar tinder can be made in the same way using cotton balls or tampons. This material when properly prepared will ignite with the slightest spark, making it very popular with campers, especially in harsh weather conditions when lighting a fire is more difficult as it has a very low auto ignition temperature of 349 °C - 455 °C. Applying the same principle that has been used throughout history by Indigenous peoples, char cloth can help start a fire with only the help of flint and steel, it is then placed in a tinder bundle and blown into flames.[2] It is easily made on a small scale making it accessible and popular in the domestic sphere and while cooking on campfires. Usually, it is made by packing a swatch of fabric into a small, almost airtight, rectangular tin and heating it slowly and steadily over coals for a long period of time, allowing it to undergo thermal decomposition. The material that remains after this process is complete is a black, fragile piece of cloth that ignites very easily, making it the preferred tinder when lighting a fire using flint and steel.


Char cloth is the preferred tinder for campers and outdoor enthusiasts when lighting a fire using flint and steel as it ignites easily and provides a slow burning, hot ember to build the fire around. When struck against steel, a flint edge produces sparks. ‘The hard flint edge shaves off a particle of the steel that exposes iron, which reacts with oxygen from the atmosphere and can ignite the proper tinder’.[3] With this flint and steel technique the  char cloth will ignite and an “ember will flash through it” allowing for a fire to be built around the ember.[4] Although the char cloth is slow burning, the spark will need to be fostered using small kindling materials such as dried leaves, small twigs or a tinder bundle.[5]

Advantages Disadvantages
·      Char cloth is cheaply produced at home with minimal effort and time taken. ·      Char cloth will not be lit by the aid of all woods. Bad wood such as willow sapwood fails to ignite char cloth at 800 °C, demonstrating the need for flint and steel in the ignition process [6]
·      Char cloth is the best material to catch a spark from flint and steel. ·      Char cloth is not commercially available.
·      Char cloth can be produced at home by amateurs. ·      Char cloth is an outdated method for fire starting, some campers prefer to use a blowtorch.
·      Char cloth takes a brief amount of time to make. ·      Char cloth is not readily available, it will need to be prepared at home before departing on a camping trip or outdoor adventure.
·      Char cloth requires minimal materials. ·      Char cloth ideally needs to stay dry to be effective when starting fires.
·      Char cloth is a convenient fire starter when camping and does not weigh a lot.
Components of a tinderbox, including Char cloth


Making char cloth from home is a simple, easy process to follow that requires minimal materials and effort. Caution should be taken when attempting to produce char cloth from home.

Despite its relatively simple production, char cloth is not commercially available for sale by large camping or outdoor retailers, other than buying from small businesses online the easiest option to acquire char cloth is to make it at home from very simple materials.

Materials needed to make char cloth:

Small swatches of fabric made from 100% organic fibres (cotton, linen, jute)

A small metal tin (Altoids tins are effective)

Cutting tools (scissors and/or knife)

A fire

·       To begin, take the metal tin and poke a small hole in the middle of the lid using the scissors and/or knife. This is where gases will escape from when you place the materials in the fire.[7]

·       Cut up the 100% organic fibre material into about 2 cm x 2 cm squares, small enough to fit inside the tin.

·       Place the cloth loosely in the tin. If they are packed too tight, they may not burn properly or may burn too much.

·       Close the tin tightly and place it in a fire, not directly in the flames but on hot embers. It does not take too much heat or too long to produce results.

·       The gases expelled through the hole in the middle may ignite, this is acceptable. Gases expelled are possibly greenhouse gases such as hydrogen (H4), methane (CH4), carbon monoxide (CO), carbon dioxide (CO2) and nitrogen (N), ensure these gases are not excessively inhaled.[8]  

·       After the gases are no longer coming out, which you will know as they are visible and tend to ignite, carefully remove the tin from the fire and allow it to cool. The entire heating process should not take very long, around ten minutes plus additional time for the tin to cool off. When the tin is opened, a black and fragile material should be inside. This material is known as char cloth and I ready to use.

·       Char cloth readily takes a spark and allows the transfer of a coal to a tinder bundle and be blown into flame.[9]

Instructions taken from B. Pandoff, 2017, Making char cloth, Survival magazine

Historical Uses[edit]

Char cloths have been used to light fires for centuries.

One of the earliest recorded uses of a char cloth dates back to an authentic ninjutsu manual written by Hattori Hanzo in 1560 called the Ninpiden or Shinobi Hiden, or Legends of Ninja Secrets.[10] The manual states how to make char cloth from either cotton, silk or paper.

“Crumple cotton, silk, or paper until it is soft. Divide it into small amounts, and dry-roast it until it is black, paying attention that it doesn’t burn white. Keep it within a tightly covered container and be sure to always have some at hand.”[11]

Another use of char cloth was recorded by C. P. Mountford and R. M. Berndt in Making Fire by Percussion, where the introduction of char cloth to Australian Indigenous Aboriginals is detailed, saying the use of char cloth was easier than traditional methods.[2]

Char cloth has also been noted as used by the Indigenous people of Hawaii in 1940. In the Hawaiian Journal of History, when describing the smoking habits of the islanders, the use of char cloth to light tobacco is briefly mentioned as a method introduced by colonists to the Hawaiian people. “This was not a traditional Hawaiian way of starting fires but was the flint and steel method introduced from the West.”[12]

In the historical non-fiction novel by Jonothan Timmons titled “Outlandish: A Human History of Violence in the Galapágos A Historical Non-Fiction Novel”, which aims to “relate the events concerning the settlement of Floreana Island in the Galápagos Archipelago in the early 1930's by European ex-pats”, char cloth is mentioned. Timmons writes that a European captain withdrew his oil cloth that contained his “tobacco and tinderbox, which held inside his flint and steel and bits of char cloth”.[13]

Scientific Investigation[edit]

The production of char cloth occurs when organic cellulose based fibres undergo pyrolysis, an irreversible chemical reaction that includes the thermal decomposition of material in an inert atmosphere (in the absence of oxygen).[1] At elevated temperatures of greater than 250 °C, cellulose decomposes to form considerable amounts of flammable products, one of these being bio-mass. "Biomass is a complex material, mainly composed of hemicellulose, cellulose, and lignin in addition to extractives (tannins, fatty acids, resins) and inorganic salts".[14] Char cloth is a form of bio-mass, termed bio-char. Char cloth is the result of incomplete combustion, as oxygen is a limiting reagent in the reaction due to the limited oxygen let into the tin during the production process.[15]


Char cloth is produced via pyrolysis, which is defined as "a thermochemical decomposition of organic material at elevated temperatures in the absence of oxygen”.[1] The products of a pyrolysis reaction will include some form of bio-char e.g. char cloth in addition to gases such as hydrogen (H4), methane (CH4), carbon monoxide (CO), carbon dioxide (CO2) and nitrogen (N).[16] These gases, most of which are greenhouse gases, when produced in large quantities can have detrimental effects on the environment. Greenhouse gases have many varied effects on the environment and the health conditions of humans. They have the potential to instigate aspects of climate change by trapping heat, and they also contribute to respiratory disease from smog and air pollution. Higher concentrations of greenhouse gases can cause extreme weather, food supply disruptions, and increased wildfires, characteristics of climate change that are a detriment to the earth.[8] Typical weather patterns that have been observed will change over time; some flora and fauna species will be effected in negative and positive ways.[16]


  1. ^ a b c "pyrolysis", IUPAC Compendium of Chemical Terminology, Research Triagle Park, NC: IUPAC, ISBN 0-9678550-9-8, retrieved 2020-11-03
  2. ^ a b Mountford, C. P.; Berndt, R. M. (June 1941). "MAKING FIRE BY PERCUSSION IN AUSTRALIA". Oceania. 11 (4): 342–344. doi:10.1002/j.1834-4461.1941.tb00332.x. ISSN 0029-8077.
  3. ^ Lombardo, Tiziana; Grolimund, Daniel; Kienholz, Anna; Hubert, Vera; Wörle, Marie (March 2016). "The use of flint-stone fragments as "fire-strikers" during the Neolithic period: Complementary micro-analytical evidences". Microchemical Journal. 125: 254–259. doi:10.1016/j.microc.2015.11.007. ISSN 0026-265X.
  4. ^ Anonymous (2014). "One Match, One Fire". Backpacker New York. 42.
  5. ^ Nickens, T (2020). "Make a Tinder Bundle". Field and Stream. 125: 53.
  6. ^ Baugh, Dick (1999). The Miracle of Fire by Friction, Primitive Technology: A book of Earth Skills. Gibbs Smith Publisher.
  7. ^ Pandoff, Bruce (2017-04-20). "Making char cloth". Survival magazine.
  8. ^ a b Nunez, Christina. "Carbon dioxide levels are at a record high. Here's what you need to know".
  9. ^ Pandoff, Bruce (2017-04-20). "Making char cloth". Survival Magazine.
  10. ^ Cummins, Antony; Minami (2012). The Secret Traditions of the Shinobi: Hattori Hanzo's Shinobi Hiden and Other Ninja Scrolls. Berkley, california: Blue Snake Books.
  11. ^ Cummins, Antony; Minami, Yoshie (2012). The Secret Traditions of the Shinobi: Hattori Hanzo's Shinobi Hiden and Other Ninja Scrolls. Berkley, California: Blue Snake Books.
  12. ^ Kramer, Scott; Kramer, Hanae Kurihara (2015). "Hawaiian Outrigger Canoes of the Bonin Archipelago". Hawaiian Journal of History. 49 (1): 179–196. doi:10.1353/hjh.2015.0019. ISSN 2169-7639.
  13. ^ Timmons, Jonothan (2017). Outlandish: A Human History of Violence in the Galapágos A Historical Non-Fiction Novel",. University of South Carolina.
  14. ^ Shen, D.K; Gu, S. "Corrigendum to "The mechanism for thermal decomposition of cellulose and its main products"". Bioresource Technology,. 101: 68–79.CS1 maint: extra punctuation (link)
  15. ^ Sostarecz, Michael C.; Sostarecz, Audra Goach (2012-07-27). "A Conceptual Approach to Limiting-Reagent Problems". Journal of Chemical Education. 89 (9): 1148–1151. doi:10.1021/ed200420h. ISSN 0021-9584.
  16. ^ a b Lashof, Daniel A.; Ahuja, Dilip R. (April 1990). "Relative contributions of greenhouse gas emissions to global warming". Nature. 344 (6266): 529–531. doi:10.1038/344529a0. ISSN 0028-0836.