Gary Gonzales Photo by: Christopher Nyerges

Gary Gonzales

photo by Christopher Nyerges

Flint and steel

Making fire the old-fashioned way with outdoorsman Gary Gonzales

By Christopher Nyerges 10/08/2009

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At a recent outdoor workshop, a dozen of us were practicing all the ways to make fire, besides using a Bic or matches. Gary Gonzales, who spent much of his childhood hunting and practicing survival skills in the hills of San Bernardino County, was demonstrating how to make fire with the steel and flint. Gonzales continues honing his skills by teaching trapping and snaring, fire-making and assisting with the classes at the School of Self-reliance.

Gonzales explained that the flint and steel method was possibly one of the most common methods of making fire before matches were invented. Native Americans made fire primarily with the hand drill before the introduction of iron into North America, whereas the flint and steel method was widespread throughout Europe, Asia and parts of Africa.
Gonzales showed the students a curved, C-shaped piece of carbon steel, crafted by a blacksmith specifically for use in making fire. Traditionally, this C-shaped piece would be wrapped around the knuckles to protect against cutting fingers when the steel struck against a piece of flint. Gonzales is adept at this method. He holds the steel tightly with his fingers as he strikes a piece of quartzite he found in the hills not far from his Palmdale home.

“Flint isn’t the only stone that you can use,” he explains. “There are many sparkable stones, such as this white quartzite.”

He deftly whacks the quartzite with the steel, producing a shower of sparks. Gonzales describes the motion as a glancing blow, where the steel quickly slides along an edge of the quartzite, producing sparks. Gonzales then shows everyone his little tin of black cotton, called char-cloth.

“I cut up pieces of cotton jeans and put them in this old Altoid tin,” he explains. “Then, notice I cut a tiny hole in the lid. I put the can into a fire and let it char. I don’t want the cotton to burn and be consumed, but I want it to simply blacken, to char. Then I can take that charred cloth and use it as my tinder.”

Next, Gonzales demonstrates by taking a bit of the char-cloth between the fingers of his left hand, holding the quartzite right next to the char-cloth, then quickly whacking the flint with the steel. Sparks fly as he yells, “I got it.”
Everyone moves in closer to look, and we see a small red glowing spot on the char-cloth. As Gonzales blows on it, the red spot grows larger and glows stronger.

“That’s how it’s done,” he says with a smile, putting the glowing char-cloth into some mugwort tinder, blowing on it more as smoke poured out. After about 30 seconds, a flame erupted, and everyone applauded with excitement. Gonzales casually put it into the fire pit, then announced that now we could cook our lunches, rather than eating them raw.

“Here’s an easier way to make fire with a flint and steel,” says one student, pulling out a Bic lighter, then flicking the little steel roller onto the artificial flint and producing a flame as we all laugh. “Yes, I can do that too,” says Gonzales, still laughing. “But once your Bic lighter is used up, it’s good to know how to take a piece of carbon steel, a piece of flint or quartzite and make a fire if you’re lost or stranded. And you don’t even need char-cloth, since you can take the fluff of a cattail flower spike and ignite that with a spark very easily.”

Gonzales is also adept at the Native American methods of fire-starting, such as the bow and drill and the hand drill.

His next project is a unique fire-starting device that can be carried in the pocket. But more on that another time.

 Nyerges is the author the recent book, “Self-Sufficient Home: How to Go Green and Save Money.” He is also the editor of Wilderness Way magazine. For more information, go to or write Box 41834, Eagle Rock, 90041.


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