The Swedish firesteel is a fire-lighting device. It is a type of “ferro rod”, this term being a contraction of ferrocerium rod. These rods are tools for creating sparks for starting fires.
By producing extremely hot sparks Swedish firesteels, and ferro rods more generally, can ignite a very wide range of potentially combustible materials.
These rods provide a highly reliable source of sparks and can be used in wet or dry conditions. Consequently, they provide a highly effective way to start a fire. especially in well-trained hands.
Furthermore, ferro rods are lightweight and easy to carry, making them a popular choice for hikers, campers, and others who enjoy the outdoors.
As a device it is extremely simple and robust. There are no mechanisms to break or clog, no moving parts to fail, no fuel to run out, no batteries to fail.
In short, the combination of benefits that this type of ferro rod brings, mean they are widely used by those who go camping, hiking, canoeing and other outdoor activities, as well as being highly valuable for emergency situations where a fire may be needed.
OK, But What Exactly Is A Swedish Firesteel?
A Swedish firesteel is a small portable device, normally made up of a ferrocerium rod fixed into an ergonomic handle, combined with a striker. The two are often tied together with a short loop of cord. Ferrocerium is a pyrophoric alloy that produces sparks when struck against a rough surface or sharp edge.
These days the striker supplied with the firesteel typically has an ergonomic handle fitted. This handle has a lanyard hole for attaching the striker to the handle of the rod. Some of the striker handles also contain a whistle for emergency use. Older models had a more simple plate metal striker with a hole drilled into it for attaching a lanyard.
Whether fitted with a handle or not, the striker is a small piece of plate metal, which has similar properties to a cabinet scraper. Notably the striker is thin and has an edge ground such that it increases the purchase on the rod, maximising the sparks created.
However, the striker is not the only way of creating a spark with the firesteel. Not being limited to using only the supplied striker is one of the strengths of this type of fire-lighting gadget. There are many means of creating a spark with a ferro rod.
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Origin Of The Swedish Firesteel
The Swedish Firesteel was not the first ferrocerium fire-lighter. The invention of the first ferrocerium alloy in 1903 is credited to Carl Auer von Welsbach, an Austrian scientist and inventor. Welsbach also invented the modern gas mantle. This is something we also still benefit from our camps in the form of the Coleman gas lantern.
The Swedish FireSteel was originally developed for the Swedish Department of Defense and has since become a modern classic of essential outdoor gadgets. Widely adopted by military personnel, this Swedish sparking device has also seen widespread take-up by civilian campers and outdoor enthusiasts, especially bushcrafters and survivalists. It is manufactured in Sweden by Swedish company Light My Fire.
The company states that since the original inception if this Swedish fire starter, it has “evolved with design improvements including a precision stainless steel striker, ergonomic handle, and a built-in emergency whistle”.
Problems Solved By The Swedish Firesteel
Light My Fire state “The Swedish FireSteel fire starter offered the first viable solution to the challenges of starting fires at high-altitudes and in low temperatures. With its ability to ignite flammable gas or liquid directly, the Swedish FireSteel fire starter is perfect for traditional alcohol and modern gas stoves.”
What is a Swedish Firesteel Made Of?
These fire-lighting devices are fundamentally a type of ferrocerium rod. Ferrocerium is an alloy made up of iron (the “ferro” part), cerium, and other elements such as lanthanum, neodymium. This combination is hardened by the addition of iron oxide and magnesium oxide.
How Does a Swedish Firesteel Work?
When the striker, or similar, scrapes the ferro rod it removes small particles of the alloy. If the rod is scraped with sufficient force the friction instigates an ignition of the scrapings, which subsequently rapidly oxidise in the air. This action produces sizeable sparks of a high temperature, potentially exceeding 3,300°C (6,000 °F).
Lars Fält on the Swedish Firesteel
In his book Uteliv På Summaren, Lars Fält, retired head of Swedish military survival training writes about the firesteel…
I dag finns eldstål tillverkade i korrosionsbehandlad metall med maximal tändsäkerhet for alla klimat. Med ett metallblad eller en kniv skrapar man fram gnistor som tänder näver, bomull, papper, gasolkök med mera. Dessa vattenokänsliga eldstål ersätter numera både tändstickor och cigarettändare.
A translation into English (via Google Translae) is as follows…
Modern fire steel
Today there are fire steels made of corrosion-treated metal with maximum ignition safety for all climates. With a metal blade or a knife, you scrape out sparks that ignite birch-bark, cotton, paper, gas stoves and more. These water-insensitive fire steels now replace both matches and cigarette lighters.
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Are All Firesteels The Same?
Not all ferro rods are made equal. In fact there are some very poor products on the market, so buyer beware.
I’ve used Swedish FireSteels, made by Light My Fire, for many years. They are one of my favourite makes of ferro rod, the others being the British StrikeFire ferro rod and the Australian Dragon’s Breath Ferro Rod.
What sets my preferred firesteels apart from others is that they are quite hard as well as producing excellent sparks. Some inferior rods are soft and, even though it is easy to remove plenty of material from the rod, are paradoxically poor at producing sparks.
Light My Fire explain that the qualities of their rods, which I particularly like, are down to their manufacturing process, “The notable difference between the Swedish FireSteel fire starter and similar friction-based fire starters, often called Ferro cerium rods is the proprietary hardening process of the alloy, which produces a high-grade material that achieves durability without sacrificing consistency.”
There are two different sizes of the Light My Fire Swedish FireSteel. The smaller of the two is the Scout model, which has a relatively thin and short rod. The larger of the two is the so-called Army model. For me this is the better size and, although, marginally heavier than the Scout model, the Army model is easier to hold and use, as well as having many, many more potential strikes in it (12,000 vs 3,000 strikes).
Using A Swedish Firesteel
How do you start a fire with a firesteel?
To use a firesteel to start a fire, you will need to gather some dry tinder (see below) and place it such that it will catch a spark from the firesteel. Then, hold the ferro rod at a downwards angle towards the tinder and scrape it with the striker to create sparks. Aim the sparks towards the tinder. Once the tinder is has caught the spark, you can take the fire-lighting to the next stage.
Depending on what you have used to catch the spark, this may mean taking it to a birds-next tinder bundle to blow an ember to flame, or it may produce a small flame directly. This can then be taken to an established fire in the same way as we might from a match, with small sticks or with feathersticks. Once the fist kindling is alight, keep building the fire with more sticks of increasing size to help it grow and become an established fire.
What can you light with a firesteel?
Technically, tinder is any material that can catch and hold a spark. This can be a material gathered directly from nature, something similarly gathered but prepared or processed in advance, or a natural material so processed and transformed by modern industrial society that it is considered “man made”.
A tinder does not necessarily burst into flame once it has caught the spark. It may well merely smoulder. Indeed, some would argue that if the material does anything other than catch a spark then proceed to only smoulder, then it is not a tinder. The argument extends to stating that anything that will come to a flame is better classified as fine kindling.
When considering many of the natural materials I use for fire-lighting, I’m not convinced such a clean line can be drawn between tinder and kindling, especially once you introduce a ferro rod into the equation. A ferro rod will light some materials directly that a traditional flint and steel can’t. This difference is down to both the size and temperature of the respective sparks.
Suffice to say then, of the sparking devices available to the outdoorsperson, the firesteel can be used with the widest range of materials.
Materials popular for lighting with a firesteel
- Birch bark: thin strips of bark lit directly, or a small sheet of bark with its surface scraped to create fine shavings or dust;
- Fine fibrous plant materials such as can be found in bark, husks, stems and leaves;
- Fluffy or downy materials from trees and plants, especially fluffy seeds and seed heads;
- Feathersticks and other wood shavings, especially made from fatwood;
- Tinder fungi, which are typically bracket fungi growing on dying or dead trees, or the cankers caused by what is commonly called chaga;
- Charcloth, a carbonised cloth of woven natural fibres such as a cotton cloth or t-shirt;
- Cotton wool balls coated in petroleum jelly can be easily ignited using a ferro rod and will burn for a relatively long time;
- Dryer lint: A common household byproduct that is easily collected, often highly combustible and can be used as tinder.
Ways of striking a firesteel
A Swedish firesteel or ferro rod can be scraped with a range of materials to create sparks. The hardness of the material and sharpness/durability of the edge presented are the key attributes.
- Metal: the supplied scraper, a piece of hacksaw blade or the back of a knife, for example (see below);
- Stone: flint, chert or similar with a robust and sharp edge lend themselves to producing sparks from ferro rods;
- Glass: a firesteel can be scraped with a piece of glass, from a broken bottle for example, to create sparks;
- Ceramic: a piece of broken ceramic pottery, from a mug or a plate, can be used as a striker to produce sparks with a ferro rod.
A popular alternative to using a dedicated metal striker is to use the back of a knife blade. The part of the knife used should be the spine of the blade, not the sharp cutting edge. While the cutting edge might well make good sparks, it will damage the edge. Provided the back of the blade is sufficiently square and the steel of the knife is quite hard, this will work well and be robust enough to be used repeatedly. Alternatively, a more-rounded back can be easily squared off with a metal file.
Lighting Gas With A Firesteel
Firesteels are very handy for lighting gas stoves but you must be very careful when doing this. If you let out too much gas before introducing a spark, you will cause a dangerous explosion. And while some people justifiably discourage this application of a firesteel or ferro rod, it should be noted this application was one of the reasons the Swedish firesteel was developed.
Swedish firesteel fire starters work well in harsh conditions, such as extreme cold, when gas does not vaporise easily. While you might also think to use a butane cigarette lighter for such ignition, the firesteel has some notable advantages. Firesteels provide predictable performance at any altitude, unlike butane lighters which are affected by reduced oxygen levels and pressures at high altitudes. Further, the firesteel is less affected by dampness than butane lighters. Cigarette lighters can also fail in other ways too.
Other Uses Of A Firesteel
These fire starters have very bright sparks that can be used as emergency signals in a night-time outdoor emergency or survival situation.
Similarities and Differences
Is a fireflash the same as a firesteel?
When I worked with Ray Mears he regularly referred to the Swedish firesteel as a “fireflash”. He also referred to these fire-lighting gadgets as “modern sparking devices”, especially in his TV shows. I picked up this nomenclature and was later puzzled by the attitude, and sometimes outright verbal aggression, from YouTube commenters when I used the term “fireflash” in YouTube videos. Even though Lars Fält and Ray Mears were instrumental in popularising the Swedish firesteel, casually referring to it as the “fireflash”, the YouTube comment warriors often tried to claim the higher ground. Some of us who have been around in this space for a long while still sometimes refer to a firesteel as a fireflash but yes, they are the same thing.
What’s the difference between a Swedish firesteel and a traditional flint-and-steel?
The traditional flint and steel, or strike-a-light, apparatus pre-dates modern ferrocerium rod technology by several hundred years. As we have learned above, ferrocerium was first formulated in the early 20th Century.
A ferro rod is scraped by a steel striker. By contrast a flint and steel set consists of a piece of steel and a piece of flint. The flint acts as the the striker, taking metal off the steel. But the method of use generally involves holding the flint static while moving the steel.
The fundamental process, however, is the same… the oxidisation of the material removed by the scraper/striker, in the case of the ferro rod it is the ferrocerium alloy, and in the case of the flint and steel, it is the steel.
Make Sure You Have A Firesteel In Your Pocket
A Swedish firesteel is lightweight, robust, reliable and easy to use. They are incredibly handy for day-to-day fire lighting in the outdoors. A ferro rod is also an essential part of any modern survival kit, making fire-lighting in difficult circumstances much easier. The firesteel is one of the seven essential items I carry with me and a piece of equipment I recommend more widely to have on your person for hiking or canoeing. It’s an essential part of your kit for anything from a day out in the woods to multi-week wilderness adventures. There’s really no excuse for not carrying one (or two) with you.