Estimated reading time: 9 minutes
The ability to start a fire anywhere, anytime is one of the most important survival skills. Take any survival workshop or go to any survival camp and the instructor will spend a large amount of time talking about different ways of starting a fire.
Some of these are rather straightforward, while others can be extremely challenging to use. Granted, there may be times when all one has to work with are materials found in the woods. In such cases, friction fire starters may be the only option available. But the whole idea of being prepared is to avoid finding ourselves in that sort of situation.
Ideally, anyone should be able to start a fire with one match or one flick of a butane lighter. That’s a good standard to hold ourselves to, as it helps keep us from wasting our means of starting a fire, prolonging how long our stocks of such items will last.
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But what do we do when we have less than optimal conditions? Many, if not most, survival situations are less than optimal, where finding dry wood to burn can be challenging. Finding dry tinder can be even harder.
It’s times like these, when we need more than just a match or lighter to get our fires going. While it might be possible to get a fire going with one match at such a time, the likelihood isn’t all that great. To ensure that our fire actually gets started, we need something that we can carry with us and which we know will burn long enough to get our kindling burning, even if our kindling is damp.
There are a number of excellent commercial products on the market, which are designed for such a situation.
The only problem is that they can be a bit pricey, especially when you start thinking about how many you really should stock, to make sure that you have enough for an extended survival scenario. It would be much better to be able to make your own, saving money.
But there’s a problem with most of the more popular DIY fire starters as well. That is, the flammable ingredients tend to evaporate. So, while they work great, they have a limited shelf-life, even when packed in a closed plastic bag.
That means you’re either going to have to replace them every few months or you’re going to be left without those aids for starting fires. What we need is something that is easy, inexpensive and will stand the test of time, without going bad.
That’s Where Sawdust Comes In
I have lots of sawdust sitting around my workshop and I’ve found that it basically never goes bad… even if I want it to. Neither do old candles. You can find old candles at just about any garage sale, usually for about 25₵ a piece.
Of course, you could go to someplace like Hobby Lobby or Micheel’s and buy paraffin in blocks, but the old candles are just as good and a whole lot cheaper. You might end up with some strange colored fire starters, but who really cares?
Candles are Key
Candles are made either from paraffin, a petroleum product, soy, or beeswax. Of the three, paraffin is the cheapest and most commercially made candles are made from it. For our purposes, it really doesn’t matter which we use; any wax will work.
While it might be tempting to say that “sawdust is sawdust,” I beg to differ. The photo above contains three different types of sawdust from my workshop. The pile in the bottom right is from pine that was cut on the table saw, making a very fine sawdust.
The yellowish sawdust on the bottom left is from planning cedar with a power plane, providing chips, more than dust. Finally, the reddish pile at the top is eucalyptus, from turning a small piece of log on the lathe.
While they all will work for making fire starters, they will not all work equally well. It’s not so much the type of wood that matters, but the size of the sawdust chips. The wood is going to act something like a wick for the wax and the fine dust from the table saw makes for tiny wicks.
In contrast, the pine shavings from the plane are considerably larger, making better wicks. The sawdust from the plane combines chips with dust, so to make it more effective, it should be passed through a sieve, allowing the finer dust to fall away.
An even better chip can be had from cutting with a chainsaw, but the only chainsaw chips had available were unfortunately soaked from the rain, making them unusable for this project.
As an alternative to wood chips or sawdust, if you don’t have those available, you can do essentially the same thing with dryer lint. Tear off small pieces and roll them into a ball, before placing them in the mold.
Ice Cube Trays for Your Mold
That leads us to the only other thing that will be needed for making the fire starters; something to use as a mold. The easiest thing I’ve found is a plastic ice tray. Plastic ice trays are generally made of polypropylene or polyethylene plastic, both of which are flexible and have the added advantage that most things won’t stick well to them.
Start by breaking the wax into chunks and melting it. The most common method of melting wax is in a double-boiler. This is considerably safer than putting a pan with wax in it on the stove, reducing the likelihood of the wax igniting. If a pan is placed directly on the stove, very low heat should be used.
Wax can also be melted in a microwave, placed in a glass, ceramic, or even plastic dish. Wax melts at a lower temperature than any plastic. Care should be taken to remove the wax as soon as it is melted, before it can begin to bubble.
A third method is to use a hair dryer or heat gun, although this is slower. Whatever container is used for melting the wax should be reserved for that purpose, as it does not clean out well and the pan or bowl should not be used for cooking afterwards.
While the wax is melting, put enough of the sawdust in the various compartments of the ice tray, filling the compartments, without allowing the sawdust to spill over, bridging the space from one cup to the next. The wax will cause the sawdust to float somewhat, so filling the ice tray slightly low is better than filling it high.
Once the wax is fully melted, pour it into the ice tray, filling the individual cups and soaking the sawdust, but not overfilling it. It may be necessary to push the sawdust down into the wax, if it tries to float. You want the wax to fully cover the sawdust, making it waterproof.
Allow the wax to cool fully. It can be left out to cool or put in the freezer. Once cooled, check to verify that the cubes are solid, by pushing down on them with a finger. Then twist the tray, causing the fire starters to pop out, much like ice cubes.
These cubes may get soft at any temperature over 86°F or 30°C, so storing them together could cause the fire starters to melt together. However, that isn’t really a problem. As a section can easily be broken off for use with a knife.
The finished firestarters can easily be ignited with a match or lighter and will burn for several minutes. Exactly how long they will burn will depend a lot on the exact mixture of sawdust and wax you have, as parts of the firestarters that don’t have sawdust will end up melting away, without burning. These firestarters will even remain burning in the wind and rain, although a heavy rain can extinguish them.
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