Smoke Signals

Jul/Aug 2012




Daniel Miller
Staff Writer


Maybe more accurate than Char cloth?

By McDara




So where did the Frontiersmen get the cloth to make enough char to keep lighting their camp fires? That was the question that we were kicking around at the Nationals in May. If they used old shirts that had virtually no other use…wait a minute…rags. Ok so once a shirt gets worn out and couldn’t be patched (not sure how far a shirt has to get worn before it becomes un-patchable) it would first get used as rags…or possibly muzzle load patch, then it becomes a candidate for char?

Seems like they would carry a bolt of cotton material around at all times so they could make char cloth and start their fires. Or maybe not. Well a couple of the guys said they had read accounts talking about "punk wood" and this was a alternative to char cloth. That raised a whole other series of questions. What the heck is punk wood? Does it matter which kind of tree it comes from? What has to be done to it (if anything) to make it work and how DOES it work?

So being the intrepid explorers we are, we tried a few things. And here is what we found out. Punk wood is the spongy wood that comes from a rotten log. Seems the process doesn’t work very well unless you use the punk wood from a deciduous (hardwood, leaves fall seasonally) tree. In other words a coniferous (softwood, or cone bearing) tree doesn’t seem to work as well, if at all.

So here is the process:

First chip out pieces of punk wood from a rotted log. Here we used Buckeye.


Ian Chipping out the punk wood

Using your char tin (tin with a small hole in the lid) arrange the pieces of punk wood.


Capt. Tom placing the chips in the tin

Close the lid and put the tin over a fire. Keep it there until you stop seeing smoke coming out of the hole.



When you let the tin cool for a minute, check to be sure all the pieces are completely charred. If not, close the tin and put it back on the fire for a bit longer. Depending on the size and shape of the tin, you may need to move it around on the fire to get all the pieces to char properly.

Needs to Char a bit longer

Now you’re ready to start a fire! How does that get done you ask…well I’ll tell you.

First you catch a spark with your newly made char. But it’s done slightly differently than when using char cloth. You hold the steel over the tin and strike down with the flint.


Capt. Tom usually gets multiple sparks to catch in one pass

Take your "nest" material (unraveled jute, rope, dry grass, cedar bark etc.) place it on the punk that has caught the spark and gently blow till you light the nest material.

The really cool part is that once you get the flame, immediately close the lid of your tin and either hold your thumb over the hole or drop it with the hole down and the char will go out and be ready for your next time.



Like any other skill, give it a try and practice a bit and you’ll find that this method is not only easy to do, but longer lasting and easier to replenish out on the trail.


Daniel Miller




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