Monday, October 6, 2008


0. the story
Today I made my own charcloth.

Charcloth is charcoal-like fabric that catches an ember or spark very well and retains that heat, burning slowly to make it useful for igniting kindling to start a fire.

It is made by burning the fabric used to make it in the absence of oxygen so that it gets all of the oxygen and moisture sucked out of it and gets charred without being consumed by actual flame. What's left over is a black brittle thin charred cloth.

I made my own today and will share the steps and specifics of how to make it with pretty pictures.

1. the materials
a. The right cloth. Use only 100% pure cotton cloth. T-Shirts work well, but make sure it's not too thin. Color doesn't really matter, but White is preferable because it makes it easiest to see the change that happens to the cloth.
b. Scissors
c. An tin container with an air-tight lid. Just think ALTOIDS. You can use one of those containers. Personally, I used a tin container that my Ren & Stimpy Uno cards came in.
d. A knife, or other sharp pointed metal object. I guess you could even use a good hard-tipped ballpoint, but don't blame me if you eff up your favorite pen. I said knife first. ;)
e. Matches or maybe a lighter. Something to start the fire.
f-g. A fire... which progresses to a burned down fire, or even a little tiny camp stove thingy. Anything that will burn very hot, Such as the extremely hot coals of dying fire.
The thing you don't want is a lot of huge crazy flames

2. the steps
a. Cut the cloth into pieces using your scissors, that will fit in your container.
b. Poke a teensy hole in the lid of the tin container with the sharp object. It should be very small. Not pinhead small, but small.
c. stick cloth in the container and close the lid.
d-e. Start the fire, at let it burn down
f. Place the container filled with cloth on the hot coals. Lots of white smoke will start billowing out of the hole
g. When it's all cool take it off and open 'er up! You haz charcloth!

3. the f.y.i.'s
a. You don't need a raging fire to heat the tin up. It won't hurt if the coals are flaming a bit, but it doesn't need to be like roaring fireplace.
b. The hole in the lid is very important! When you put the tin on the hot coals, it's going to heat up the inside of the tin, causing any oxygen and moisture inside to expand and spew out the of the hole in a white colored smoke. If you don't have the hole on the top, the expanding gasses will have nowhere to go, causing the lid to explode off, and the last thing you want is a hot tin object flying off into your face or anyone else's.
c. Since hot coals are obviously going to start cooling, you can put some more wood/coals around the tin to be lit up and keep everything nice and blazing hot inside that container. It needs to be hot enough to char the crap out of the cloth inside but again, not raging-fireplace-hot.
d. you're going to want to do this outside, not on your stove. Whatever ink or print on the container is probably going to melt off onto your stove or burn up into a rather bad-smelling toxicky smoke which you don't want that floating in your air.
e. When the white smoke stops billowing out from the whole in your lid, it should be good, but just leave it there until your container and coals have cooled enough to make it safe to touch and remove.
f. When all's cool you should have some nice charcloth inside! gratz!

g. The lid may be hard to take off, just so you know, because the metal might expand a bit, or any print on the tin might melt over the lid and container. Just put some muscle into it.
Appendix: Afterthoughts
I made the mistake of doing mine over a very violently burning fire because I had trouble controlling the flame. I think this made the process happen too fast because it burned through the coals and wood fuel very very quickly so it got very nice and hot, but it burned out too fast to make sure the process was thoroughly completed. Try doing it nice and slow if you can. It takes practice to get the kind of fire and heat you need to do this.
It might also take more than one try to find the right cloth. I used a very old undershirt t-shirt which was too thin so my cloth came out overly brittle.
Mine didn't hold an ember very well unless I assisted it by blowing to keep oxygen flowing to it.
I also found lots of shiny material inside my container with the cloth. I'm guessing it was the ink from the print on top of the can leaking inside through the hole and causing this chemical residue to be left behind.
Hopefully the next time I try this I will be more successful because I'll more evenly and effectively create a bed and nest of hot coals to evenly and thoroughly heat my container and use a thicker T-shirt.

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