Fire from Steel - Custom forged fire steels from Roman through Fur Trade time periods Welcome to Fire & Steel

The Magic of FIRE from STEEL

(Full sized pictures and description below)

Gallery of individual Fire Steel photos

How do you take a chunk of steel, hit it with a rock, and get a fire? This is amazing the first time you see it! But, it does take a little knowledge, some proper tools, and some preparation.

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.

Bright Oval Fire Steels. These are 3 inches by 1 1/2 inches by 1/8 inch thick. Made from 1095 tool steel.

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 area.

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.

Examples of some Great Lakes area iron trade goods - patterned after originals pictured in the book Where Two Worlds Meet.

I have been blacksmithing for many years, and have made several hundred strikers, in a couple dozen different styles to fit time periods from Roman times to the WW I trenches. Much of my experience was gained the hard way, but a little research and instruction from knowledgeable smiths helped.

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 own research.

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.

Thank you.

Mike Ameling

I forge these fire steels myself, along with many other historical tools and accouterments. Any orders & request's can be made to:

I can be contacted @ 1-563-546-7902 Days & Evenings

Mike Ameling

1201 360th Street

Dorchester, Iowa 52140

I am in and out of the house a lot, but the answering machine is on. The best way to initially contact me is by email. When you send an email to me, please put flint striker or fire steel in the subject line. That makes it easier for me to sort it out of all the spam emails.

My prices for fire steels start at $12 per steel, and vary by style and complexity. Shipping generally would run $2 (USA) per fire steel. Check and compare my humble forgings with the workmanship and styles available from other sources. My work speaks for itself.

I also custom make mid to late 1800's carpet bags.

Mid to late 1800's. A simple carpet bag - lined with canvas - two big interior pockets - bound in leather with a metal rim. Machine made carpets became available in the 1830's, and carpet bags were being made and sold commercially shortly there after. In wide use during and after the Civil War. Their use after the Civil War by so many of the people from the North who moved into the devastated South to take advantage of the chaos and depressed economy. This led to the bad connotations associate with them. Carpetbaggers earned a bad reputation, and anyone using a carpet bag was associated with that bad image. This quickly led to the collapse of the carpet bag market. A carpet bag is less bulky, and easier to pack and carry than a wood box or trunk. It also is less expensive than leather luggage, and not damaged as easily by weather and use.

Small grease lamp. Also called a slut lamp. Used from the 19th century on back throughout the ages of iron.

Some examples of colonial era lighting peices. Square grease lamp with pedestal for a candle. Round candle holder with handle. Square grease lamp with a small grease lamp on the pedestal.

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