Learning how to make char cloth is a valuable bushcraft skill that enables you to start a fire with only a piece of steel and a hard rock.
Since fire is crucial for survival, having this skill is essential whether you’re spending the weekend in the woods for fun at your bushcraft campsite or suddenly find yourself lost on a hike.
In the woods, it’s always crucial to consider and be ready to start a fire. After starting a fire, it’s important to think about starting the next one – and char cloth can help you do just that.
This guide will show you one of the most useful fire-starting techniques. Once you know how to make char cloth, you can keep it in your fire-starting kit and use it as another tool to be prepared to start a fire.
Personally, I always keep char cloth in my survival kit. It’s super simple to use once you have it made, and works in practically any condition. However, making it can be hit-or-miss. Many online guides are unclear or skip keep steps (or add steps that just make the process harder).
But it doesn’t have to be complicated. Once you know how to make char cloth, it’s actually quite easy.
Keep reading to find our tips on how to make the perfect char cloth every time!
How to Make Char Cloth – Quick Summary
- Gather materials (small tin box and material to be charred).
- If the tin container is airtight, punch or drill a small hole in the lid.
- Cut and place the material into the container.
- Place the container in coals of fire for 15-20 minutes.
- Remove from fire and allow to cool without opening.
Materials That Are Needed to Make Char Cloth
- Tin container (an Altoids Tin works well)
- 100% plant-based material (100% cotton cloth or soft punk wood)
- Heat source (hot coals work best)
How to Make Char cloth
Step 1 – Locate and Prepare the Tin
I have found that an Altoid tin works the best. They are easy to find at any grocery or convenience store, are inexpensive, and do not require a lot of prep work. Just dump out the mints, wipe it out, and it is ready to go.
I have seen small paint or stain-type containers work; however, they must be fully cleaned first. They also have a pry-off lid that is a pain to hammer closed and reopen in the field.
Step 2 – Punch Hole in the Tin (not required for Altoids Tin!)
It is a misconception that all Tins must have a hole punched in them to make char cloth.
This is only required if you are using an airtight container!
During the cooking process, the air inside the tin expands, and gases are released from the material. If the container is airtight, this increase in pressure could rupture the tin and cause the material to burn instead of char.
An Altoids tin is not an airtight container. The gas and smoke can vent out of the tin around the lid.
To prove this, I used two Altoids tins and drilled a hole in only one. I used the same cloth and the same fire and cooked them for the same amount of time. The results were identical. The hole made no difference and was a waste of time.
Also, now I have a hole in one tin, and I can’t use it for anything else.
But, if you are using a tin with a sealed lid that must be hammered on like a paint can, then you must drill or punch a hole in the top. Otherwise, you may end up with a small explosion (complete with a ruined tin and char cloth).
Step 3 – Find Your Char Material
This can be one of the most difficult steps.
For the char cloth to catch a spark and burn properly, it must be a plant-based material. 100% cotton works great. The best is a rougher material like you would find for linens, towels, or an old pair of denim jeans.
Most clothing is usually made with some type of man-made material like Nylon or Polyester. Polyester is a synthetic material that melts much like plastic does.
If you use a blend, the result will be char cloth that does not readily burn. Be sure to check the tag on the cloth to ensure it is 100% cotton.
Other plant-based materials that you find in the woods will also work. The best, in my experience, is soft rotten wood (also called punk wood) from non-coniferous trees. Punk wood from trees like willow and tulip poplar works the best.
The punk wood should be soft and moist but not overly wet. I usually find a tree that has fallen and has lost most of the bark.
The bottom of the rotting log is usually very wet, and the top is usually hard and dry. Towards the middle of the log is moist wood that is soft but does not totally crumble.
Step 4 – Cut the Material
Cut the cloth material so that it is slightly smaller than the inside of the tin container. You don’t have to be super accurate, just make sure the material lays flat. You just want it to fit.
You can char multiple pieces at once. The number depends on the size of your container and the thickness of the material.
When I use an Altoids tin, I like to put no more than 4 pieces of cloth in at a time. If you put too many, the inside pieces will not char completely, and the outside pieces will be overcooked. It’s like having a too-thick piece of meat.
If you are using punk wood, carve the wood down so that you have a single piece that will fit in the can. You can use multiple pieces, but make sure they are similar in size. A small piece will cook more than a large one.
Step 5 – Cook the Char cloth
Now you are ready to cook!
Any heat source will work, you are basically turning the inside of the container into a small oven. I have found that a hot bead of coals from a campfire or the coals in a charcoal grill works the best.
Place the tin container directly on the coals and place a few on top as well.
Avoid direct flames, as a hot fire can burn through the tin container and destroy the cloth.
In a fire with hot coals, it takes about 15-20 minutes. If you still notice smoke coming from around the container lid or the hole that you punched in the lid, leave it for a little longer.
Unless it is very cold outside or your fire isn’t very hot, it should not take longer than 20 minutes.
You really don’t have to worry about overcooking char cloth. You can leave it in the fire or add material that is undercooked to it.
Step 6 – Remove the Tin from the Fire and Allow it to Cool
Obviously, the tin will be hot!
At camp, I like to use the pliers on my multitool or a forked stick to remove the tin from the fire. If you are making it at home, just use some long tongs.
Move the tin to a place where it can cool.
Do not open the tin container yet!
Wait about 30 minutes and allow the tin and the cloth inside to cool off. If you open it too soon, the oxygen in the air can cause the cloth to ignite, which we don’t want.
Step 7 – Inspect and Store Your Char cloth
After the tin has cooled, open and inspect each piece of your char cloth. The squares of material should be smaller now and totally black.
If they have any color to them or are a brownish color, they were not cooked long enough. Simply put them back in the tin and cook them longer.
If only the centerpieces look undercooked, you can put them back in without the others. It may be that you tried to cook too many at once.
If they are fragile and crumble in your hand, you either opened the tin too soon or too much oxygen got into the tin.
Each piece should still have the same texture as it originally did and move in your hand without breaking.
Store your char cloth in a container to protect them from water. If the pieces get wet, they will not usually ignite.
I like to leave them in the tin and put the tin in a Ziplock bag. This protects them from crumbling in my pack, and I have the tin in the future if I need it.
How to Make Char Cloth Video
If you don’t have a tin with you, you can also make char cloth with a stainless steel bottle and cup. The bottle and cup combination has multiple uses from purifying water to cooking. You can buy the bottle and nesting cup here.
Watch this video to see how to use the bottle and cup and also for tips on how to ignite it.
Why Make Char Cloth?
To start a fire, you need heat. Ferro rods and Bic lighters generate enough heat to ignite dry fire tinder. The sparks from a Ferro rod can reach up to 6000 degrees (F), while a Bic lighter is an open flame.
A spark from flint and steel is only around 1000 degrees (F). The spark is usually very small and not hot enough to ignite even the driest tinder.
However, even a very small spark will ignite char cloth. The char cloth can then ignite tinder that is slightly damp and questionable since it will burn for a few minutes. If you have nothing but a high-carbon steel knife or folding saw, you can strike it with a hard rock to create a spark.
How to Use Char Cloth
The main thing to remember with char cloth is that while it does burn and generate heat, it does not just burst into flames. It needs to be ignited and placed inside a tinder bundle where the heat can transfer to the tinder.
Also, remember that if the char cloth gets wet, it will not burn properly. If it is raining, take great care to keep it dry. Make sure your hands aren’t wet, and watch for water dripping off your clothes or hat as well.
Step 1 – Create Your Fire Tinder Bundle
A fire tinder bundle is often called a “bird’s nest.” It should be made of dry bark and grasses and contain small strands of material, similar to a bird’s nest. It should be at least 6 inches in diameter and be large enough to hold while it is smoldering.
This is the step where most people struggle. It takes a considerable amount of time to collect the correct material. If you don’t collect enough or if the material is not dry, the char cloth will not ignite it, and you just waste a piece.
Step 2 – Gather your Kindling and Arrange your Fire Lay
For your initial fire, you want small sticks and pieces of wood that are dry. A feather stick also works well for this if you do not have any small kindling.
A feather stick is a piece of wood, often a small tree or branch, that has been carved into thin shavings that are left attached. This creates a larger surface area for a fire to transfer heat and ignite the wood.
Soft resinous trees like pine and cedar work best for this.
Arrange your kindling and place it over your bird’s nest once it is burning. The bird’s nest will only burn for a minute or two, so you want your kindling, and the start of your fire lay ready to go.
The biggest mistake people make when starting a fire is using too-big pieces of kindling. You want twigs in the beginning.
Step 3 – Ignite Your Char Cloth
As we mentioned earlier, the main advantage of char cloth is its ability to ignite just from a spark.
I like to use my high-carbon steel bushcraft knife and a piece of flint. Instead of a knife, you can also use the spine of a folding bushcraft saw. Just make sure the blades of either are not coated. You need bare steel to generate a spark.
I keep a piece of flint that I found in my fire-starting kit, but you can find flint out in the woods or even in the gravel alongside a road. The flint rock should be hard and not break apart when you strike it against the steel.
I like to take the tip of my knife to hold the charcloth against a rock or piece of wood. This keeps it from blowing away if a gust of wind comes along.
I then strike the knife’s spine with the flint to create a spark. The spark naturally falls to the charcloth and usually ignites it quickly. If it takes more than three attempts, either the flint you are using isn’t hard enough, or your knife isn’t high-carbon steel.
Once you can see little red halos in the char cloth, it is burning. It will not burst into flames but rather turn a dark red color that moves over the cloth from where the spark fell.
You can also ignite the char cloth easily with a magnifying lens like the one on the Swiss Champ Swiss Army knife or a Fresnel lens.
Step 4 – Place the Char Cloth in Your Fire Tinder Bundle
When the char cloth is burning, you want to place the cloth in the center of your bird’s nest. Fold the tinder material around the char cloth and hold it off the ground where air can circulate under it.
If there is no wind, gently blow air up through the bundle. You should start to see the smoke increase as the heat builds inside the bundle.
Do not rush this step. Often, I see people blow very hard, and once they see smoke, they stop thinking it is burning. Keep blowing gently on the bundle, and be patient.
Once you see flames, move the tinder bundle under the kindling you have already prepared. Gradually add larger pieces of wood as the fire grows. Never add wood that is higher than the flames from the fire.
How to use Char Cloth Video
Here is a video showing how to make a bird’s nest and start a fire using char cloth.
6 Helpful Tips for Making Char Cloth
- Use 100% cotton material that has a rough surface. If you are in the woods and do not have cloth, soft rotten wood called punk wood can be used. The punk wood should not be from a resinous tree like pine or cedar. The punk wood should be moist and soft. Wet wood will take longer to cook.
- Do not place the Tin over a direct flame. Direct flame can burn through and damage the tin, destroying the cloth.
- Do not drill or punch a hole in the container if it is not airtight.
- Only fill the container about 75% full. Too many pieces of cloth can cause the centerpieces not to char properly.
- Do not flip the containers around in your fire. You could accidentally open them. Leave them alone and place a few coals on top instead.
- Do not open your container until it cools!
Make You Own Char Cloth
Now that you know how to make char cloth, try it yourself. You can practice at home in a fire pit or charcoal grill before you head out in the woods and make it in a campfire.
Charcloth is another tool in your fire-starting toolbox that could become essential if you lose your lighter and Ferro rod. Make some and store it inside the time in a zip lock bag and keep it in your bushcraft pack, bug-out bag, and get-home bag. It is cheap insurance.