Fire Starters - A Saturday afternoon project

Submitted by Scarecrow64 on Sat, 09/05/2015 - 16:22

Ok, so what do you do in the backyard on a 85-F afternoon in September?  Play around creating fire-starters, what else?

I've played around with quite a few, and apart from good ole fashion "fat wood", I found these commercial Mini Inferno jobbies from the Self Reliance Outfitters to be the easiest and most reliable ... for me. 

They work every time, using a flame or ferro rod. They're made from a pretty tried an true method - wax impregnated cotton pads.  They've been included in a few of the "kits" I've picked up from their store. Bulk (in a plastic bag) and in their snuff tin type container. I've used them everywhere ... wind, dry, rain and darkness.

All you do is tear them open, exposing some of the cotton fibers and ignite. Quite often, I only use a half disk to start fires in "less than ideal" conditions. They are clearly paraffin based with a slight odor that took me a while to place. Obviously it was some sort of accelerant and petroleum based at that. At around $8 for half dozen, they are not exactly cheap when purchased on their own. But, they WORK.


Well after using them for over a year, my "bushcraft" (aka DIY) nature took over and I began to experiment on how best to reproduce these little gems. It's a great skill to have and frankly you don't want have to wait for the Postman to deliver your tinder.  So, I went to the local pharmacy and picked up a tube of those little gems. I had wax aplenty in the form of left over stubs of 50% beeswax candles. So I fired up an old can of EcoFuel (from old prepping stash reserves) and slapped a wire stove and tuna can on top to melt the wax.  Dunking the pads and allowing them to dry took no time at all. A 6 oz can managed to melt enough wax so produce about 12 disks. So, what was the results?

Tiny disks of wax impregnated cotton. That's pretty much it. Were they fire starters? No, they were more like fuel. Eventually they'd light, for sure. And they would burn for quite a long while, upwards of 10 minutes. I would hazard to guess two of these would could be used to heat a cup of water quite well. But I wasn't looking for a new fuel source. I was looking for a new sure-fire tinder. This was not it.

Hmmm ... time to do some comparisons. The SRO branded ones were identical in size. Red in color, but figured that was immaterial and probably a results of their use of wax. One thing I did notice was their product was hard and slightly slick, where my failure was tackier and a bit more pliable.My suspicion is the beeswax in my mixture was affording that pliability -or- the SRO product was using a higher end paraffin based wax (melt point beeswax 145F vs paraffin 125-165F). Another factor, and ultimately what my thinking settled upon, was the odor.

Remember the mention of a petrol smell? We'll I remembered it, too. But I never could not place what it was. It wasn't acrid enough to be WD-40, and wouldn't believe they'd actually use lighter fluid being too volatile. Finally figured out the source one evening when a front porch chat session went well beyond dark. I pulled out an old wick lamp and there was the physical connection to an olfactory memory - Lamp Oil.  They put lamp oil in those things. Hmmm ... so how do they do that?

Seems to me, the lamp oil could explain a few things. The SRO product was obviously impregnated with wax, but somehow remained "fluffy" on the inside. I'm wondering if the Lamp Oil somehow is added first and as a result emulsifies the fibers, allowing them to remain free from being bound to the wax. This could explain how the wax sort of fills the voids and encases the pad, but still affords the ever so important "fluffy" cotton fibers that just LOVE to combust. Well, the easiest way to do that, given my simple nature, was to put lamp oil on the pad before dripping. 

A 1ml "eyedropper" was easy enough to slip in the fuel port and also allowed pretty good control for measuring disbursement on the pads. Two pads at 0.5ml and two having a full 1.0ml added were soon drying. One thing I noticed right away, where my fingers held the pad (yeah, I hadn't wised up used tweezers yet) on one sample seemed to fill with lamp oil. It was almost as if the wax was pushing the lamp oil out the gap. Note to self - file for future reference. How long does it take for wax impregnated pads to cool on an 87 degree day? Can't say for sure as I got impatient and put the little buggers in the 'fridge 'cause I got tired waiting.wink

Now the burn test. Lot 1, being the 0.5ml sample lit fair easy when whole. Lot 2 sample (1.0ml), this one I handled with a bit more care. It was the one where the lamp oil noticeably oozed right out the spot where it had been grasped during dunking. A quick flick of the bic and up it went. Way too easy to be safe in my thinking. Both burned quite some time, nearly equal duration which surprised me since one clearly had twice the accelerant. I went back to my final Lot 1 sample, tearing it to determine if the lamp oil really did produce those fibers that are so coveted. Indeed, a quick tear and there were PLENTY of fibers. Interesting to note also is where the lamp oil was concentrated, the disk was still quite (almost too) pliable. Application of flame resulted in a quick flash and vigorous combustion. Well, these were effective for sure, but still a bit too effective. Obviously adding even small amounts directly to the pad worked but was inconsistent. (BTW ... Second sample of Lot 2 simple was tossed on the inferno in the backyard fire pit.The flash from Lot 1 was more than enough more me.)

 So, the solution must be that the lamp oil be added to the wax. Based on my observation that the wax seemed to "push" the lamp oil out through the open cotton fibers, I'm guessing the cotton has an affinity for the oil and would take it on, before taking on wax. There were two things left for me to consider, what type of lamp oil to use and what proportion was safe, let alone optimal. First the type of oil - I figured paraffin based lamp oil was probably safest, given it's a derivative of the same paraffin used in most waxes. I still planned on using the same paraffin-beeswax base and figured the paraffin oil would at the least not produce an unexpected (and exciting!) chemical reaction ... even when heated.

Second issue was the proportions. A fair place to start would be in the 5-10% range, hopefully a the lower end. My tuna can vessel was 6.5oz. So, I figured I'd mange about 6oz on liquid wax while allowing for head space.  Pull out the back yard scientists "secret weapon" (no not duct-tape, but a cell phone) and punch in 6*0.05 to find it's 0.3oz.  "Hey, Google! now many milliliters is 0.3 ounces?" Google answer came to 8.87. So, we'd call it 9 (well it is back yard science for our back yard bushcraft).

Fortunately, my dropper was 1ml in size, so I didn't have to invoke the wrath of Mrs. for sacrificing yet another kitchen implement (in this case a measuring spoon) on the alter of "I wonder if ...".  Nine droppers pulled from the fuel well of our sad little blue lantern added to our miniature cauldron of nearly boiling wax and we were off! Given our additive of lamp oil to our mixture, common sense finally prevailed and I pulled out a venerable pair of hobby tweezers to keep as much of the scalding, flammable mixture off my fingers as much as possible.  The first four were dipped and unceremoniously plopped on the tin-foil to cool. A few minutes later, flipping the first showed some interesting differences.  This time, of course they adhered, but when I pried them up, they began to fray. Clearly the fibers were more "lubricated" then in any of the previous attempts.

Well, problem 3 to solve - how to dry these buggers (sans sacrificial kitchen ware ... criteria #1). Rooting around the stash of Odd-bits-you-hold-onto-just-to-irritate-the-wife, I stumble upon bamboo fondue skewers. Perfect! Line 'em up and lay 'em out, brother. Soon there are another 8 potential fire starters cooling on our improvised "rack".

Note the back row look slightly different. The first row were "quick" dipped, in-and-out.  The second row were dipped for approximately 3-4 seconds. I noticed during that duration, bubbles formed almost like they were deep-frying, and the "puffed" a little. We'll see if that makes any difference (future post). Making 12 of these took nearly 2/3rd of the wax. So it's conceivable that 16 total could be fashioned from 6 oz of this solution. Leaving them cool for a while, it was now time to see if mixing the lamp oil with the wax was more effective. 

I took one of the non-rack coold (aka the reject pile) to test out.  It was reasonably firm, similar to the pure wax predecessors, but slightly more pliable. Odor? Not so strong as the SRO product. Folds ok, exhibiting some cracking as desired. The tear strength is firm but pulls apart ... and there are fibers! I noticed rather than a straight tear, rip and then pulling apart produced the best fraying.

  A quick application of open flame and it takes off ... no flash, just a steady flame. About a minute later, fully involved and burning away. Total burn time was about 6-7 minutes outdoors in a breeze.  And for you "neo-traditionalists" I did verify a they were ignitable via our much beloved ferro rod. Ripping the disk into quarters and stacking them points to the center (like a classic a-frame fire), two strikes and a sizzling fire ensued. 

So there it is ... Mixing paraffin based lamp oil with wax at the 5-10% range seems to do the job reasonably well.  My next batch will be pushing more towards the 10% end of the range. I expect this will produce a result closer to the SRO product, and ultimately be that much more reliable.