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Making "Char"

Photos and text by Rob Bicevskis


Various books and other documents often refer to something called "Char."  This page gives some background on char and describes a few ways of making it.

Why do we want char?

Often in primitive skills, or survival situations, one is faced with trying to catch a small spark in order to turn it into a larger coal and ultimately into a fire.  Have a look at the page on Fire- Flint & Steel (on this website). View the video from the June 2002 meeting of Wildwood Trackers (about 2/3 of the way down the page).  There are precious few substances that will easily catch sparks thrown from flint and steel.  Char is one substance that does work well.

What is char?

The process involved in making char is akin to making "coke" from "coal."  In essence, some organic matter is heated to high temperatures in an environment devoid of oxygen. In this process, all sorts of volatiles are driven off from the base material leaving only carbon.  If you would like more information, looking into how "coke" is made.

Making Char

Making char is very easy.  The simplest approach is to take some cotton cloth.  The cloth is torn into squares, and placed into a small tin.   A small hole is made in the top of the tin.    

The tin is then heated.  In this picture, a BBQ was used.  The tin can also be placed onto hot coals from a fire etc.  After a few minutes, white smoke will start coming from the hole.  This smoke contains much of the stuff that is in cotton that is not carbon.

The "volatiles" that are in the smoke are flammable.  After a few more minutes, the smoke will probably light and burn.  This is fine.  Since there is no oxygen in the tin, the carbon from the cotton is not burned.  Continue heating the tin until there is no more smoke or flames.  After this, keep the tin closed and let it cool.  If the tin is opened too soon, the char inside may ignite.

After the cooling-off period, the tin is opened to reveal the transformed cotton. In this state, the cotton char is quite fragile, but very useful.

This photo shows a piece of the char "burning." 
Another Way of Making Char

These two photos show an alternate way of making char.  Instead of using a tin for the process, one can warp the cotton in some foil.  The foil needs to be folded into an "air tight" packet.  As with the tin, the foil packet needs to have a hole to let the gases escape.  If the hole is too big, or the packet too leaky, the char may ignite.
Final Notes

Make sure that you use pure cotton for making char.  If there are added synthetic materials, then one will usually end up with either black ash, or some other unidentifiable guck in the tin.

Char can be also be made "on-the-fly."  Take a larger piece of cotton and set it aflame.  Once flaming, throw it to the ground and stomp on it until the flames go out.  The "charred" edges of the cotton are lower quality "char."

Materials other than cotton can be used for char.  Experiment with some punky wood or other "organic" materials.

The coarseness of the original cotton material will affect the "sensitivity" of the char.  I.e. a thin cotton T-shirt will produce a char which will readily catch small delicate sparks.  This char will also be very fragile.  Char make from heavy material - say blue jeans, will be more robust, but it will usually require a larger spark in order to light.

Char works will with flint-and-steel, in fire pistons etc.  I have not been able to catch sparks from pyrites.