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
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
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
(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.
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,
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
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