Carlos Hall Photo by: Christopher Nyerges Carlos Hall

Warm to the touch

Carlos Hall and his amazing magnesium fire-starter

By Christopher Nyerges 06/17/2010

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Senior Airman Carlos Hall was home in Pasadena, on leave from the Air Force, and, as usual, we discussed primitive skills and survival tools. 
 
I was pleased that Hall’s fire-starter of choice (aside from matches or a Bic) is Doan’s magnesium fire-starter, which Hall demonstrated to a small group of students. He took the block of magnesium (measuring about 3 inches by 1 inch about 3/16 of an an inch thick) and scraped a pile of shavings from it with his Swiss Army knife. The magnesium fire-starter has a built-in sparking rod, so Hall then scraped the sparker, sending a shower of sparks into the magnesium powder, which quickly burst into a white flame. 
 
“It’s really foolproof,” said Hall, “and it doesn’t matter if it gets wet.” 
 
Hall held up the tool, attached to his keychain, for everyone to see. He pointed out that it is the ideal fire-starter, with no moving parts and nothing to replace or refill. 
 
We both laughed about a recent article in a major outdoor magazine in which they advised readers about their top choices for outdoor fire-starters. They recommended fire pistons, which are hard to use in even ideal conditions. They must be clean and well-oiled, and the tinder must be ideal. The magazine staff also recommended a tool that merely sparks, but contained no built-in fuel, as does the magnesium fire-starter. 
 
In 1998 in Ohio, I met the inventor of the magnesium fire-starter, Sol Levenson, who is now deceased. Levenson told me that before he invented this tool, he noted in his metal shop that magnesium shavings readily ignite, and that he had to always vacuum them up. He believed that a tool could be developed for outdoor use, and by the late 1970s he was manufacturing his new tool. It is now sold even to the military. 
 
The magnesium fire-starting tool is widely available. (If you can’t find it, contact me at ChristopherNyerges.com.) When I first saw it, it was obviously the best “non-match” fire-starter that anyone had come up with. It was safe, simple and inexpensive, and one block was capable of igniting thousands of fires. It was definitely a keeper.
 
Over the years, people have asked me if the tool is dangerous, since the magnesium is so flammable. I have tossed these tools of solid magnesium into fires to see what happens, and it takes about five minutes before the tool burns up in a white fire. Magnesium must be in the powdered form for it to be a quick fire-starter; it is safe in the pocket in its solid form. 
 
Hall demonstrated the tool with the use of dried mugwort. He scraped some of the shavings into a small wad, sparked it and a flame was created, igniting the mugwort.
 
In fact, mugwort was one of the local Native Americans’ plants of choice for starting fires. Hall also demonstrated how to direct a spark directly into the mugwort, without the use of the magnesium shavings. Within a few seconds, the mugwort was glowing with an ember, which Hall blew into a flame. 
 
“You can never have enough mugwort,” Hall said with a smile, showing us a large container of dried mugwort that he keeps in his pack. 

Christopher Nyerges is the editor of Wilderness Way magazine and the author of “How to Survive Anywhere” and other books. He can be reached at christophernyerges.com or Box 41834, Eagle Rock, Calif., 90041.

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