The fire steel needs to be high carbon tool steel - like a file, or a spring from a
car or garage door. Yes, you can also make it from new tool steel. You
forge/file/grind it to the shape you want, then heat it up to a cherry red. This is
a "critical" temperature for steel. At this temp, a magnet will no longer stick to
the steel. You then quench it by putting it in water until cold. It is now hard like
a file, and will create sparks.
A piece of flint works best, but any hard rock with a sharp edge will work. Flint
just works better, and holds a sharp edge longer. It's also easier to knapp the
edge to sharpen it.
Then you need something to catch the sparks. Charred cotton or linen cloth
works very well. When a spark lands on it, it catches, and the glow will spread
throughout the whole chunk of cloth as you gently blow on it. Once you have
that spark in your charcloth, you then need a "bird's nest" of very dry grass, or
bark, or old rope. And then all the small twigs and kindling to build your fire.
When you strike a glancing blow, with the face of the fire steel, across the
sharp edge of the flint, you get sparks. What you are doing is cutting or
scraping little bits of the steel off with the sharp edge of the flint. It's just like
when you push a piece of steel into the bench grinder and get sparks. It
takes a little practice, and you have to be careful that you don't hit your
knuckles on the sharp flint!
You strike your flint and steel so that the sparks land on the charcloth. When
one catches, you place the charcloth in your "birdsnest" of dry bark/grass.
Gently wrap the birdsnest around the charcloth and spark. Now gently blow on
it. As the spark spreads out through the charcloth, the heat is transferred to
the birdsnest. When it gets hot enough, you have FIRE! You then place the
burning birdsnest into your prepared kindling, and build your fire.
Simple, ain't it? It helps to see someone else do it, and get a little one-on-one coaching. What
a great thrill you get when you make your first fire!. After years of practice, I
can start a fire faster and better than with matches. I have gotten flames in 13
seconds. I know people who have gotten flames in 5 or 6 seconds! Without any
cheating! The best part is making your fire in an historically correct manner.
The classic C shaped fire steel.
This is the most common style of flint striker as examples can be found from early
Roman times (1st-3rd century), through Medieval and Viking eras, on up through the entire
time of European contact with North America. Some examples are very simple having a
straight taper on each end which is then curled round into the C shape. Some have small,
tight curls on the ends. The ends can vary from almost touching each other, to barely
looping back a full 180 degrees. The Northmen (more commonly called Vikings) preferred
a variation of the C fire steel that had a pronounced bulge or peak on the opposite side of
the striking surface with the ends coming close to touching it. The left steel is mid 1600's
French style. The British had a very similar style.
The right steel is late 1700's colonial. The center steel was a favorite style of the Romans
and the Vikings.
Roman/Medieval fire steels.
The Romans appear to have had three primary styles: the C style with many minor
variations, the P or R style, and the Sled or Sleigh style. Examples of these styles can be
found from at 1st to 3rd century archeological sites on up through 16th to 19th century
Persian pieces. The P and Sleigh styles appear to have gone out of common use and
manufacture in the 14th and 15th centuries. Other styles include: a straight tapered rod
in a wood handle (like an awl); U or horseshoe shaped with ends cut at an angle out from
between the two legs; D shaped straight striking bar with one end tapered and looped back;
and a C variant with a straight striking surface with both ends tapered and looped up to
twist together to form a triangle.
The three bottom fire steels are what I call the P or R style. The one with the chain is an original 1st to 3rd century find. It is 1 1/4 inches wide by 2 1/2 inches tall. The Sled or Sleigh style is directly above the original - second from left in the middle row. The far right pin style steel is based on an original that was found in an Inuit camp site in Greenland - a Viking style.
Oval fire steels.
Oval strikers appear in many centuries, but became most prevalent in the 16th through
19th centuries in the North American fur trade. They are listed in fur post journals and trade
good orders, especially in the Great Lakes and Canadian contact areas. Many specifically
mention brightly polished oval steels. Most of the originals that have been excavated are
thin - 1/8 or 1/16 inch thick or less. A late 19th century style developed from the oval by
tapering one end to a screwdriver point - shaped more like a teardrop.
Purchased in large quantities by
the North West Company and The American Fur Company. Flat oval fire steels of this type
widely sold by the American Fur Trade Company around the Great Lakes and throughout the
west were mass produced in cities like Sheffield, England. Russell mentions that frequent
reference to oval shaped steels appears in American Fur Company correspondence. For
example, oval strikers were sent into the mountains by Pierre Chouteau Jr. and company in
1838, 1839 & 1840. "These steels, Warranted Bright Oval, were supplied by Hiram Cutler of
Sheffield at $.30 per dozen, and they came from the jobber put up in papers of one dozen
to a package. Papers of the St. Louis Fur Trade contain an 1835 invoice that lists 50 dozen
bright oval fire steels shipped up the Missouri River from St. Louis, Missouri aboard the
steamboat Diana C. A. Halstead by the Chouteau family. These papers also reference a
different merchandise invoice that lists 12 dozen bright oval fire steels and one dozen boxes
of oval fire steels being shipped up the Missouri River by the same vessel.
(My thanks to Mssr. Raddison and COHT for the majority of this brief description.)
These fire steels are some examples of fire steels traded throughout the Great Lakes contact
Fire steels made for trade were made as cheaply as possible while still sparking well.
Steel was expensive while labor was cheap. So fire steels were made quickly, simply, and
using as little steel as possible. Examinations of original pieces from excavated sites show
that they were very thin - 1/16 or 1/8 inch or less. This is found in many of the factory
produced strikers. Fancier more complicated patterns and styles were made, but they were
more expensive to purchase, and a more valued gift. Local smiths working in their own
shops, or working for the trading companies and post also made fire steels for sale and
trade. They worked in smaller quantities using new steel, and many times with recycled
steel (from old files, saws, scythes, chisels, etc.). Local blacksmith made strikers tend to be
thicker, and more decorative, even with the most simple styles.
This group of fire steels are examples of 1700-1800's colonial American strikers - showing
some of the range of styles and creativity of local blacksmiths.
High carbon steel is needed for strikers, as well as knives. (Mild steel - welding shop iron - will make
a usable knife, but will dull quickly even doing simple tasks.) High carbon steel can be found at
low cost, or free. The time spent forging a striker or knife is best spent on good steel. Case hardening
isn't worth it for strikers. The surface hardening wears away too fast in normal use.
A few available sources for scrounged steel are:
**files - excellent for knives and strikers - but be careful, some new files are low carbon inside with case hardened teeth
**car springs - usually 1095 or W1 tool steel - excellent also garage door springs, torsion bars,
hay rake teeth - 1095 - Hershel House forges a striker from one in his Basic Blacksmithing video
**lawn mower blades - yes, very good tool steel especially older ones 1095, W1, or 5160 - a very good
material for strikers, and most people can get them or already have them.
Forge your striker, then bring it up to the non-magnetic point - a dull to cherry red. Then quench in water.
I quench the whole striker immediately - fewer stress cracks or breaking. Use a grindstone or rub on cement
to scrape the surface forge scale off of the striker face. Check it for sparking. If it doesn't spark well,
heat treat it again, at a little hotter temp.
Every once in a while, I get one that will not spark. After trying to heat treat it a couple times with no
success, I pitch it. It's not worth further effort.
These are my humble opinions and advice. They are best used in conjunction with your
This is a work-in-progress. I will be updating this page with other styles, and a time line
of styles and areas of manufacture/use. If you have any corrections, comments, or additional
information, please contact me. I will greatly appreciate it. My thanks for the able assistance
of Tim Timmerman, Dave Hartwig, Mssr's Koster and Radisson, and the many blacksmiths
that shared their knowledge with me over the years.
Some sources for your own research:
*Where Two Worlds Meet - the Great Lakes Fur Trade
*Voices from the Rapids - An Underwater Search for Fur Trade Artifacts 1960-73 - Wheeler, Kenyon, Woolworth, Birk
*A Toast to the Fur Trade - A Picture Essay on Its Material Culture - Robert C. Wheeler
*Collector's Illustrated Encyclopedia of the American Revolution - George C. Neumann, Frank J. Kravic
*Early American Antique Country Furnishings - George C. Neumann
*Firearms, Traps, & Tools of the Mountain Men - Carl P. Russell
*Journal of a Trapper (1834-1843) - Osborne Russell
*Fire-Steel - Bli Acciarini
*Colonial Wrought Iron - the Sorber Collection - Don Plummer
*300 Years of Kitchen Collectibles - Linda Campbell Franklin
*Southwestern Colonial Ironwork - The Spanish Blacksmithing tradition from Texas to California - Simmons, Turley
*Dictionary of Woodworking Tools - R.A. Salaman
*Accouterments I, II, III - James R. Johnston
*A Diderot Pictorial Encyclopedia of Trades and Industry I & II
*The Colonial Angler's Manual of Flyfishing & Flytying - Ken Reinard
*Our Own Snug Fireside - Images of the New England Home 1760-1860 - Jane C. Nylander
*Customs and Fashion in Old New England - Alice Morse Earle
*Lost Country Life - How English country folk lived, worked... - Dorothy Hartley
*The WIlliamsburg videos - Hammerman, Gunsmith, Silversmith, and The Cooper's Craft
*Basic Blacksmithing I & II videos by Hershel House
*The Longhunter videos by Mark Baker