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Fire is the magic that binds us all together! There are very few experiments in history that we can recreate without fire forming some part of it. We use fires to cook, fires to harden our clay, fires to make our metals. The very tools we use, past the stone age at least, are often created with it and yet remarkably few of us seem to make it.

Here I am going to take a moment to tell you about flint and steel, a method I regularly use. Why flint and steel? why not any of the other methods available? The answer is simple, most of the other methods require ideal conditions, lots of practice and more than thirty seconds to get a flame.

First and foremost we must look at the steel. Early "steels" were made of iron that had been case hardened and it is the hard casing that yields the results, however this needs re-hardening regularly. For our purposes I would recommend a high carbon steel instead if you are recreating an era that you can justify it for.

Fire Lighting.

Striking the Spark.

Beware! many of the ready made steels I have seen being sold for this purpose do not work well, if at all. Do not buy a steel without trying it first, if the vendor will not let you try, it is probably suspect.

The flint is important too. I have found that the darker black it is the better it strikes. There is certainly evidence that this dark flint turns up as finds in many areas where it is not native. a sharp edge works best and depending upon your preferred method this can be acute or almost square.

Viking steel striker, flint and linen tow

I will try to explain the methods of striking sparks with words and not pictures. If my understanding of what is happening is correct, we are using the flint to shave tiny slivers of steel from the surface of our striker. This causes heat at the moment of separation which superheats the loose slivers and they appear to us as "sparks". This being the case the flint needs to strike the steel at an angle that planes the surface with a sharp edge. You can either hold the steel still and strike down with the flint or strike the flint with the steel. The strike should be quick but not too hard. A little practice with either method, should soon produce a good shower of sparks, if it does not, try altering the flint or strike angle slightly until it does. Now we need some tinder.

There are a few ways of making tinder, I use this one because it uses waste materials that were available to most peoples from the Iron Age onwards. Firstly we need scraps of pure linen cloth, I use linen for most of my under tunics so there are often trimmings to be found. I presume the same would also be true for our ancestors so it seems a good starting point. The authentic way to do this next part would need a clay pot with a well fitted lid, I have tried this so I know it will work, but for ease of production I would recommend an empty shoe polish tin to start with. Pierce the lid of your tin with a small hole and then put it into a good fire to burn off any residue of the polish. Remove the tin and let it cool. Now pack the tin with as much of your scrap linen as you can fit in without it hanging out of the edges when the lid is replaced. Return the tin to the fire in a spot where you can observe what happens.

Our tinder is going to be a form of charcoal so the object is to part burn the linen in the tin with a minimum of oxygen. We can watch the tin to see when it is ready. The first signal is a plume of smoke issuing from the hole in the tin lid, this is often, but not always, followed by a jet of flame. The heat of the fire and the amount of linen will dictate how long you will have to wait until all the smoke and flame have ceased. Now remove the tin carefully with some tongs and let it cool.

When the tin is opened you should see a blackened wad of cloth-like material somewhat smaller than you put in. This is your tinder and if you break a sheet off, you should be able to light it with the sparks from your flint and steel to create a glowing red ember. This ember should smoulder for some time and if you blow on it it will spread faster.

The final ingredient needed is something to turn our ember into a flame. For this we can use waste linen again. When flax or linen is combed before spinning, the coarse and broken fibres are often discarded. This scrap is called "tow" in Old English and almost the only thing you can make of it is a poor cloth called "tow rag". However if it is very dry it is quite inflammable due to a high content of linseed oil. If we take a small amount and wrap it around our glowing tinder, we can now blow upon the ember and as the ember increases the temperature of the tow it should burst into flame quite spectacularly. Mind your fingers, beards or long hair by the way.

The first flame.

Linen fibre can be obtained from spinning and weaving suppliers and if it is not dry enough, small amounts can be dried either in a warm oven or with a few seconds blast in a microwave. Occasionally you can do all this but the ember will not quite generate enough heat to ignite the tow. This is usually because the tinder has been made of a linen cotton mix. It really does need pure linen to work well and it is important to keep the tinder and tow as dry as possible. A small metal container like a snuff tin makes a good tinderbox but you will have to find something that fits in with your period of history.

I hope this has encouraged you to have a go because there really is no better way to answer the public's question of  "how did you light that fire?" than by showing them. I am indebted to my good friend Dave Thirlwall for starting me on this path ten years ago. We now regularly exchange notes on other techniques we have found for this job. However, this remains the easiest, most reliable and, when fire bursts from your fingers in front of an audience, the most magical seeming method of all.

 

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Lore-and-Saga Living history services and resources for schools, museums and heritage sites. Viking and Roman in school sessions and craft demonstrations. teachers notes and worksheets. Vikings, Saxons, Romans, national curriculum, invaders and settlers, key stage 2, history, teachers information, living history interpreter, in school sessions, storytelling, Roman resources, educational presentations, Viking lore, runes, Roman lore, Viking saga, living history interpretation, Viking resources, Odin, Viking crafts demonstrations, Roman cookery display, Viking silverwork, Roman games, chronology, Viking games, Roman school visits, Viking runes, national curriculum history key stage two, Viking school visits
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