Make Your Own Char Cloth

Char cloth raw materials

Char cloth raw materials

Char cloth is some super handy stuff that you can use to get a fire started. Mine are made from old 100 % cotton T-shirts, although any 100 % natural fiber cloth will work. Char cloth is fabric that has undergone a process known as pyrolysis. This process converts fabric into a slow-burning fuel that has a very low ignition temperature. Even a single spark can ignite char cloth which in turn will ignite a tinder bundle to start a fire. Let’s take a look at how I made mine.

I started with a thicker, worn out white 100 percent cotton T-shirt for the char cloth material. A container is needed to “cook” the cotton fabric. An empty Altoids tin works great for this. The chosen container needs to be able to withstand fire and it needs to be almost air tight. I have seen videos and survival shows on TV where a metal bottle is used for the container. In these shows, the metal container is placed directly in a campfire to process the cloth. I am using a backpacking stove for the fire source. Some recommend poking a couple small holes in the top of the Altoids tin using an awl or other small sharp tool. I have used the tin with and without the holes. Both seem to work well.

Char cloth

Char cloth “processing”

Cut the cotton fabric in pieces that fit inside the container. Seal the lid and crank up the heat. Make sure you process the char cloth outside because this is going to make a lot of smoke, and of course be safe any time fire is used. Put the sealed container with the T-shirt cloth inside on the stove, grab a cup of coffee, sit back and relax. In a short while, smoke will start to come out of the container as the cloth undergoes pyrolysis. The smoke will stop in ten minutes or so. At that point, char cloth is inside the Altoids tin. Allow everything to cool completely. If the container is opened too soon while it is hot, the char cloth may go ahead and combust and you will be left with ashes.

Completed char cloth

Completed char cloth

Once the container is cool to the touch it may be opened. The white T-shirt fabric is now jet black and it sticks together a little bit. I tend to just leave the char cloth in the Altoids tin since the tin makes a perfect lightweight container to carry. Any container, including zip lock bags, can be used. I made enough char cloth in this batch to last me for years. I’ll probably give some away.

To use the char cloth, all you need to do is get a spark to land on it. This stuff catches fire incredibly easy. It burns slowly like a fireworks punk. Put the lit char cloth in a bundle of grass or other tinder and softly blow on it until a flame breaks out. Char cloth may be used in fire pistons, with flint and steel, or lit with sunlight using a focusing lens.

The big advantage of char cloth over just using matches is the stuff will not go out in high wind. There isn’t really an open flame, so it cannot be blown out. A decent sized piece of char cloth will burn 30 seconds to a minute, giving plenty of time to get a flame going if dry tinder is available.

I enjoy practicing fire making skills while out in the woods. Some methods of primitive fire making are much easier with char cloth. If for some reason, my primary means of starting a fire falls through, this stuff is going to come in handy.

– Mark