An Easy 7-Step Guide to Making Char Cloth

If you’ve just been introduced to the world of prepping, you should know that learning to make fire is a rite of passage marking the beginning of your prepping journey.

Since you’re here, we assume you’ve already done some digging and unearthed the forefathers of fire-making – flint and steel. 

Flint and steel (F&S) fire-making is as old school as it gets, but it’s been around for centuries for good reason. The materials are easily obtainable, and with enough practice, anyone can master the skill. You’ll only need flint, steel, heaps of tinder to start a fire, and one more secret ingredient – char cloth. 

In this article, we’ll walk you through the process of making char cloth so you can be officially inducted into the prepping club. Let’s get started!

What Is Char Cloth and How Does It Work?  

Char cloth is a processed tinder meant to be prepared before you head outdoors. It’s an organic fabric that’s been cooked down to carbon through a process called pyrolysis.

The charring process eliminates all hydrogen and oxygen molecules in the fabric – including any impurities such as moisture, tar, resins, oils, and dyes – resulting in a residual mass consisting primarily of carbon.

Essentially, this creates charcoal in a different shape and form, or what we’ve come to know as char cloth.

Once you understand the science behind it, logic dictates that you can basically char any organic material you encounter in the woods, including any of the following:

  • Tree Bark 
  • Mushrooms 
  • Pinecones 
  • Chestnuts
  • Acorns
  • Spruce Needles
  • Moss
  • Algae
  • Flowers
  • Leaves
  • Punk Wood

The possibilities are endless! However, they’re not all guaranteed to be practical for lighting a fire. They could work, but with some, you’ll need a bit more elbow grease to catch a spark.

For the purposes of this blog, we’ll talk about why char cloth could be an excellent addition to your fire starter kit

What Are the Benefits of Using Char Cloth

Char cloth may not be the end-all-be-all of fire-making, but it’s still a great addition to your arsenal of fire development skills.

Now that the market’s saturated with various ferro rods, BIC lighters, and matches, F&S fire-making has taken a backseat in the world of survival. Despite this, some preppers still prefer to carry premade firestarters, like char cloth, to serve as a backup in case their primary tools don’t work out. 

If you need more convincing, we’ve laid out the benefits of using char cloth to substitute your other firestarters when you’re out braving the elements.

  1. It’s easy to make.

There are only a few moving parts to the char cloth-making process. With materials readily available in your home, like tin cans and old fabrics, it’s easy to piece together this reliable tinder before you set off into the woods. The method is simple, and ideally, you won’t have to spend a dime.

  1. It’s highly combustible and slow-burning.

Char cloth is pure carbon, meaning it’s highly combustible. All you need is one spark, and with enough natural tinder and a good kindling, you can build a substantial flame. Don’t fret, though. It’s a highly flammable material, but it won’t easily dissolve into flames. In fact, it’s rather slow-burning, giving you enough time to torch your firelay.

As a word of advice, char cloth burns relatively slower than your other firestarters, perfect for lighting tinders at a comfortable pace. However, the speed at which it burns through will still vary depending on the fabric you use. In particular, char cloth made of thinner cotton fabrics burns through faster than char cloth made of thicker woven fabrics. 

Beginners may find it easier to catch a spark with thinner char cloth, but thicker char cloth is arguably more durable for weathering it outdoors. With enough experimenting, you’ll eventually find the fabric that works best for you.

  1. It’s compact. 

All you need is an airtight container like a small Altoids tin to stash your char cloth and keep it from getting wet. It’s not a lot of trouble to carry around, and it definitely won’t take up much space in your EDC kit. For something you can fit inside your pocket, this premade tinder comes at no cost to you and is an uncomplicated piece of everyday carry gear.

  1. It’s reliable in wet and windy conditions. 

The good thing about char cloth is that carbon is still carbon even if it’s wet. It’s great to have on reserve next to your matches and ferro rod if you’re expecting to start a fire in the rain. If you ever worry that moisture’s gotten to your char cloth, just pop it back into your campfire and it’ll be good as new. 

Windy conditions won’t render a char cloth ineffective, either. In fact, a light breeze can help to fan out the flames for your tinder bundle. Frankly, char cloth might even hold up better than a BIC lighter in the wind!

  1. It brings you in touch with nature.

As cheesy as it sounds, making char cloth actually does wonders for the soul in terms of nurturing your connection with nature. 

Let’s be real. Anyone who wants to learn the art of making char cloth does it for the same reason anyone still practices flint and steel fire-making in this day and age. The primitive ways of fire-making just fulfill you in ways that your modern firestarters can’t. 

How to Make Char Cloth

If those benefits managed to get you on board with the idea of making char cloth, we’ve laid out the steps you need to follow. Don’t worry, it doesn’t take a seasoned prepper to do it. With the right attitude and the patience to back it up, learning how to make char cloth is really a no-brainer.

Prepare the Things You’ll Need

The first thing to do is to prepare the components of a good char cloth. Making char cloth only requires these five things: 

  1. Tin Can

Regularly load up on breath mints? Don’t dispose of those Altoids tins just yet because they make great containers for cooking char cloth. An Altoids tin is the perfect size and can be used several times over for your DIY char cloth.  

If you don’t have an Altoids tin on hand, you can opt for screw-top tins, empty canned food containers, or even paint cans if you want to make char cloth in bulk. Make sure there’s no leftover residue inside your tin cans once you start cooking.

Here’s a pro tip. Buy a safety can opener to load up on all the char tins you need. Safety can openers cut around the outside of a can rim instead of down through the top, giving you a can with a close-fitting lid that you can turn into a perfect char tin. 

This way, you no longer have to worry about hoarding Altoids tins since you can now turn any of your empty cans into a char tin.

  1. Cloth

Avoid cloth with synthetic materials like polyester and nylon since they’ll melt once you put them over a heat source. We recommend 100% organic fabrics like cotton, wool, and linen, although cotton is the most commonly used. 

For cotton, we recommend denim fabrics since they’re more durable. Your old cotton shirts and rags could work too, but they won’t be as sturdy to work with after you cook them down.   

Seasoned preppers also suggest a thick, woven cotton fabric called a “duck canvas” for making char cloth. A loosely woven duck canvas quickly catches a spark, making it perfect for fire-making. 

If you can spare some old cotton towels from Pottery Barn, they’d be good char cloth too. Cotton fabrics with woven patterns are great options for char cloth since they’re firmer and less likely to break down after cooking.

All this said, we totally understand if you can’t spare any of your quality fabrics just to turn them into char cloth. If that’s the case, go to your nearest drugstore and buy a pack of cotton balls.  

Yes, you can char pure cotton balls too! Just note that they’re more fragile, and with a smaller surface area, they’ll be more challenging to work with when you’re trying to catch a spark for your tinder bundle.

  1. Nail

You’ll also need a nail to punch a hole through your char tin for cooking. A small 2d nail should do the trick. 

  1. Scissors

Get a good pair of fabric scissors to cut your cloth so you don’t leave the edges frayed.

  1. Heat Source 

Any heat source is acceptable, but we suggest cooking your char cloth over an open flame outdoors for safety reasons. We recommend a slow-burning bed of coals over an open fire pit for an even char.

Punch a Hole Into Your Tin Can

Now for the fun part. Once you’ve got all your materials set, it’s time to get your hands dirty.

First off, punch a tiny hole through the top lid of your tin can with your smallest nail.

You don’t need to punch a big hole into your char tin. All you need is a small entryway for the gasses to escape while cooking your char cloth. This step is essential because if you cook the cloth without a hole in your tin, the lid can forcefully pop off from the unreleased gasses built up inside.

Cut Your Cloth

Your cotton fabric will shrink a lot after cooking, so don’t forget to account for shrinkage before cutting up your fabric for charring. We recommend cutting your cloth into 3” x 2” pieces if you’re using a standard Altoids tin. If you’re working with a different container, just cut it enough to fit inside your tin without folding it over.

Put the Cloth Inside the Tin and Cook Over Fire

Stack your pieces of cut-up cloth over each other and put them inside your tin. Don’t overfill since the fabric might not cook through. About 6-8 pieces of material should be enough for a standard Altoids tin. Put fewer pieces if your fabric is thicker.

Afterward, place the tin over a bed of coals to start the charring process. This could take anywhere from 10 to 30 minutes, depending on the strength of your heat source. 

A good rule of thumb is to check if there’s still smoke coming out of the hole on the lid. If you still see smoke coming out, gasses are still being released and your cloth hasn’t cooked through. If it stops smoking, then your char cloth is good to go.

We suggest doing this outdoors because you wouldn’t want yourself or your family to inhale the fumes from the cooking process. Doing this over a bed of coals also encourages a slower and more even cooking process as opposed to cooking your char cloth over direct heat on your kitchen range.

Plug the Hole and Wait for the Tin to Cool

Immediately remove your tin from the heat and set it off to the side once the smoking has stopped. With the nail you used earlier, plug the hole on top of the lid. You can also use a toothpick to seal the lid if your nail doesn’t stand upright. If plugging the hole doesn’t work, bury the tin under some dirt as it cools. 

This step ensures that no oxygen comes in contact with your newly charred cloth. Since you essentially cooked off your fabric without oxygen, science dictates that adding oxygen back into the equation could cause your char cloth to combust before it has had any time to cool.

For this reason, we also don’t recommend opening the tin too soon and exposing your char cloth to air. Wait until it’s cooled enough for you to touch it with your bare hands. 

Use a pair of tactical gloves for a safer and more comfortable charring experience. The TAC9ER Tactical Gloves are temperature resistant so your hands can be protected from burns while you’re tossing your char tin over a toasty campfire.

Inspect Your Char Cloth

Once your tin has cooled, inspect the char cloth inside. If any of the pieces still have brown spots, this means they haven’t cooked through. Just pop them back into the heat and cook for a few more minutes if that’s the case. If the cloth easily disintegrates in your hands, your fabric is overcooked.

A good char cloth is black all over, holds its shape, is soft and easy to tear, and doesn’t leave remnants of ash on your hands.

Make a Fire

Grab your firestarter of choice and get those sparks flying. The char cloth’s perfect pair for ignition is your standard F&S or ferro rod.

To ensure you’ll get a flame going, stuff your kindling with other types of natural tinder like birch bark, dead thistle heads, and dry grass.

Strike downwards into your char cloth and watch it absorb a single spark and set your firelay ablaze!

Final Thoughts

Unless you wanna spend eons lighting a log with a BIC lighter, you might wanna have some premade tinder, like char cloth, on hand before you head to your next outdoor adventure. 

It may not be the best fire-making ammo today, but char cloth is an excellent reminder of our ancestors’ ingenuity. It helped them light fires to cook, signal for help, and keep warm for centuries, and it can do the same for you too!

Share what you love about making char cloth in the comments below!

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