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Flint and Steel sets. - A review.

I received a nice e-mail from Michael May a while ago asking if I would like to review a flint and steel set from his web site   www.flint-and-steel.com.

As traditional fire lighting has been an interest of mine for many years I replied that I would love to. Shortly after this a package arrived from St.Petersburg and on opening it I found myself looking at a Flint and Steel Kit No. 9 containing a Firesteel No. 5 (Small Viking style) and an additional Firesteel No. 3 (Slavic style - 10th Century Pskov) the contents you can see here.

Preview -  2017 - Gary Waidson - Ravenlore

Unfortunately a whole bunch of things then happened to get in the way but Michael was very patient and I finally got a free afternoon to give it a detailed examination.

My first impression is that this is a very nicely built set.  The bag is well made from decent quality leather, machine stitched with a synthetic draw cord and some simple leather washers to make nice “beads” on the ends.

The most important element in such a kit is of course the steel striker. I have seen so many nicely made strikers that fail to provide good sparks over the years but that was certainly not the case this time. Mors Kochanski once said to me that his measure of a good strike is that sparks should bounce off the ground from a standing position. I had no problem achieving that with these steels.

The shapes are historically correct for anyone re-creating the Early Medieval period in Europe and they look convincingly hand made.

The other important ingredient, the “flint” provided, is of a dark grey, matt surfaced kind reminiscent of chert, roughly knapped but certainly good enough for fire lighting.

There was a small, black tin box of the type fresh breath mints are often supplied, wrapped in a piece of cloth bound with jute twine. This contained a good supply of charred cloth, again nicely made and presented.

Next to this was a hank of jute twine and a colour printed leaflet describing how to use the kit.

In my work I use flint and steel very regularly and my first instinct was to try the steels and char cloth with my usual method. This involves using flax tow as the secondary tinder because it's fast and reliable for use in my demonstrations.

The char cloth caught with the first spark which is always nice but when I wrapped it in the tow bundle to blow it, I got lots of smoke but no flame. An unfair test perhaps because I know the flax needs a lot of heat to ignite, but it did indicate to me that the char cloth was probably cotton or a mix of cotton and linen. ( Pure linen char cloth usually burns much hotter and ignites the flax tow easily.)

So back to the contents of the kit. The jute twine and the leaflet. If in doubt read the instructions.

The leaflet suggested cutting several bits of twine, unravelling them and making the secondary bundle with that. A bit more fiddly but straight forward enough. A little under 5 minutes later I had a familiar looking bundle of fibres, jute this time, and repeated the test. The char cloth caught on the second strike this time and after four gentle blows into the bundle I was rewarded with a very satisfying burst of flame. Job done.

So what do I think?

There are different people that these fire lighting kits might appeal to. The most obvious perhaps is the historical re-enactor or living history interpretor like myself. The other type of person is the sort of backwoods camper or bushcrafter that enjoys using traditional skills to enhance their outdoor experience.

For the bushcrafter, a kit like this would be a joy to own and use. Simple, reliable and the well illustrated leaflet is clear and easy to understand.

Most historical re-enactors would find the steel just as useful but might have to choose which kit to buy more carefully. The tin sadly would have to be replaced with a more accurate tinderbox. Also the pouch supplied with this kit would not pass inspection for Early Medieval use for example because of the machine stitching and synthetic cord but other kits may be suitable depending which historical period they were working with. 

People involved in more accurate living history presentations have to be able to justify all the materials they use and both jute and the cotton char cloth would not pass muster before the 17th century. That is a small issue, easily remedied by replacement with flax and linen char cloth like I use.

A few very dedicated living historians might have a problem with the tell-tale signs of laser cutting and what looks like acid etching on the steels themselves. It would be a very sharp eyed authenticity officer that actually spotted such details but there are a few out there.

More worrying are a couple of the claims contained in the leaflet:

“All of the components of our kits are made by hand. Just as was done in the olden days, we only use naturally-occuring materials and primitive technology to ensure that our kits are environmentally friendly. In our smithy, we carefully forge and quench our steel strikers over charcoal according to ancient methods which have stood the test of time. We also scorch linen fabric ourselves to ensure that we produce char cloth of the highest quality.”

To be clear, the website does also sell steels labelled specifically as “Hand Forged” which have hot twisted steel elements that could not have just been cut from a plate and that might well be what the leaflet is referring to, but that is not made clear and the steel shown in the leaflet looks remarkably similar to the ones supplied to me and I do have my doubts that these are actually hand forged.

So in conclusion: The steels and kits are well put together and work very well. They would suit someone interested in the process that wanted a functional fire lighting set. For historical recreations the standards might need to be a little higher depending on your audience. The steels certainly look the part to a casual eye but may not suit the most demanding of living history requirements.

 

I put these points to Michael and received  his response:

 

I'm very grateful for your comprehensive review. Thank you very much.

There are a couple of things that I'd like to address with regard to the materials included in the kits.

Firstly, the char cloth is definitely linen-based. I can have a batch each of cotton and linen char cloth made for you to compare them for yourself if you so wish.

Secondly, I appreciate that the steel strikers look rather too well done to be hand-forged. The reason being is that we have started to employ a manually operated pneumatic press to finish off each steel striker with some degree of uniformity.

The rationale behind this is that the majority of our customers (despite looking for a purely hand forged product) cannot accept the existence of the usual dents and marks caused by hammering metal by hand. Plus, they tended to complain if the product they received was even slightly different from the photos on our website.

I have some photos to show you with a comparison between the old and new versions of the same strikers if you wish to see them.

As for the issue with the use of jute, I agree that this is a material  historically associated with India and other parts of Asia. That said,  it makes for excellent kindling so we've included it largely for the  benefit of bushcrafters

 

I have no forensic facility to test the fibre content of the tinder of course, my judgement was simply based on experience so I could be wrong on that one I guess.

As for the steels, I ran them past two blacksmiths and an engineer who all had pretty much the same opinions as myself although they conceded that they could have been pressed, I have no further resources for testing out my instinct so I  guess we could all be wrong on that as well.

Ultimately,  I will let you, the gentle reader, form your own opinion upon that matter.

 

Edges of Steels -  2017 - Gary Waidson - Ravenlore
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