Pardon the low light image that makes my arm look funkier than it actually is, but I wanted to make sure the flash could be seen–AND I didn’t want to move out of my easy chair to better light.
Okay, as I stepped up my research into the practical uses of fire pistons as a viable fire starting method, I realized that tinder has quite a lot to do with success. Char cloth seems to be the modern standard. With the Vaseline type lubricants usually used, the char cloth gets messy and fouls the inside of your cylinder. I then learned about Stone Tinder, a product produced by my friend Pierre Coutu and sold on eBay and from his Stone Tinder website. He has been very helpful in my overall fire piston research. We have swapped other alternatives of materials that can work in a pinch. Such materials have been few and often hard to come by in the wilds.
Once I got the design and technique down to where I felt I could produce fire just about every time, I began to try and log different materials. Everything from belly-button lint (it has possibilities), to various natural downs and fluffs and fibers. Cattails, both mammalian by accident, and botanical, do too. Dried pond scum to corn silk and milkweed ovum. You name it. I have been trying it and logging it. During the process, I was sometimes left sniffing the closed cylinder to see if even a hint of ignition had taken place. Was that leftover from the last thing I got fire from or just then?
I had heard of fire pistons made of clear materials that would allow you to see the fire when it ignited–if it ignited. The only ones I could find cost more than fifty bucks and up. The whole idea about alternative fire starting methods has always implied a DIY take on the process for me.
This endeavor is what led me to the clear cylinder fire pistons that allows you to see whats going on inside the tube upon ignition. It has greatly improved both my technique and my understanding of just how close some materials come to making an ember that would otherwise be lost on me. I have found that many materials show promise even if they merely make smoke, or better yet, a very small flash. I find that these marginal materials can sometimes be coaxed to make an ember by using a couple of rapid slams or a little more of less lubricant. Once the correct combo is figured out–it can be repeated. For this reason alone, the clear piston design has proven indispensable to me in mastering the nuances of fire piston design and use.
This link is to a recent YouTube clip made last evening showing how my DIY fire piston looks when making slam fire. It is just a few seconds long, but it tells a lot.
If you watched carefully, the first slam produces only a slight flash, but the second slam immediately following is very bright, fully igniting the tinder within. This phenomenon can be due to one of several causes. One is that the first slam heats up the cylinder and contents while subsequent slams build on that to get them heated to full ignition. A less scientific explanation has to do with technique. It could be that the first attempt was spent largely in properly lubricating the cylinder to get a good seal for the second attempt. Since I was there doing the slamming, I can tell you that I did not have the cylinder straight and the first slam was not a very solid and fast one. Not seeing a significant flash, I immediately slammed it again.
The ember was obviously already heated up, so the second slam, which was very solid and fast, really got it going. More than any one thing, this type of immediate feedback provided by this homemade clear fire piston has probably taught me more about technique and usable tinders than any one thing.
I first read about a DIY attempt using clear acrylic that worked only a few times before shattering. I then learned of a high strength clear polycarbonate used in the aerospace industry and finally called in a couple of favors to obtain some of the fairly rare stuff. The formulation is apparently closely held, but it is the same stuff used in the best bullet proof windows and the windows on spacecraft and jets. I don’t know exactly what it is other than a variety of high-strength clear polycarbonate material. It is relatively expensive. I guess that may be one reason why those clear commercial fire-pistons cost so much–if that’s what they use. Anyway, I was fortunate to get my hands of a sufficient supply to make all the fire pistons I will ever need and then some.
It took some experimentation and a few fails, but I now feel that I have a safe, effective, and foolproof design that I can make for a lot less than half the commercial ones–that is as long as I can get my hands on this clear space stuff at scrap pricing. I am now using aluminum for the piston rod and aluminum and copper for plugging the tube and either those or wood for the the slam handle knob. Bonding the stuff to where it can withstand the major pressure generated inside the tube took some doing. (I shot one aluminum plug like a shotgun slug out the end of one and knocked a hole in the wall before I got this piece figured out.)
In spite of their durability and strength my clear fire pistons will show minor scratching over time, so care needs to be exercised to keep them clean and free of grit. But even with the scratches, you can still see the flash. I plan to doctor one of them up with a few inches of red and yellow paint to further increase the pizzazz of the flash. To keep my group demonstrators fresh, I rotate them out for new ones every couple of group demos–allowing individuals and blog followers to acquire them at a price to cover my costs.
I will do group demonstrations of a few of my One Hundred Ways to Start Fire without Matches when called upon. Scouts, youth groups, preppers, home schoolers, history and science classes, and what-not. The clear fire pistons were an instant hit with both kids and adults, so I usually make up a dozen or so to accommodate the group. I am not out hawking sales for this stuff, but if someone really wants one, I will provide them at my cost, including just a tad for labor. I have made enough of them that I have a good design down cold. They are homemade by hand as I watch TV or listen to educational audio materials. No two look exactly alike. They have minor scratches or imperfections at times, but they look nice enough and most importantly, they work well. And yes, it is very cool to see the flash the the clear space window material as shown in the YouTube clip posted here–but it is even better live.
These things have lots of possibilities both for teaching principles of physics and the sciences as well as tying into history and prehistory, and teaching the principle of compression ignition and introducing primitive fire-making fire making methods, as these devices were by most accounts first used by prehistoric peoples in the tropics of South East Asia and vicinity as fashioned from wood and bamboo. But the main attraction is that you can make fire out of thin air by using these fascinating gadgets. They are practical and useful.
I have been making fire pistons from anything I can find left and right. Reliable models are becoming easier for me to make. If faced with the need, I think I could find something to make just about anywhere I may find myself. I am still trying to master reliable designs made from entirely natural materials. I will share more designs in future posts here and at my other fire blog One Hundred Ways to Make Fire without Matches or Lighters. You may want to visit this blog for additional fire-making information. One Hundred Ways to Make fire without . . . .