Gear Camping Gear

4 Tips to Avoid Fire-Making Mistakes with Spark Rods

Practice makes perfect
How to start a fire with a sparking rod
An array of different Ferro rod fire starters. Tim MacWelch

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I love spark rods. These durable, yet affordable spark throwers will work in any temperature extreme, and even work after being wet. And while a butane lighter may work best in most situations (since an open flame ignites a wider range of tinder than sparks alone), a “Ferro rod” makes a great piece of backup gear. They’ve also been around for over a century. Ferrocerium was invented in 1903 by the chemist Carl Auer von Welsbach in Austria. This alloy produces hot sparks in excess of 3,000F when it’s scraped against a rough surface or sharp edge. The recipe for this alloy varies, but it’s generally 50 percent cerium, 25 percent lanthanum, 19 percent iron, with small amounts of praseodymium, neodymium, and magnesium.

Ferrocerium rods are a popular fire starter among survival enthusiasts, though quite often, they are sold in packaging that is devoid of detailed instruction. This knowledge gap leads to frustrated newbies and mistaken claims that the products don’t work. Over the years, I’ve watched fledgling survivalists stumble over the same problems—which are easily solved with a little understanding.

1. Scrape Off The Paint

Many spark rods are coated with a slick black paint to prevent corrosion and to keep them from scraping against each other during manufacture and transport to the marketplace. This paint will need to be scraped off before the sparks start to fly. Most often, the pressure you’d apply to scrape off sparks will also scrape off the paint and expose the ferrocerium.

2. Scrape Hard

I often advise my students to scrape the rod “like you’re trying to break it!” Dainty scraping won’t remove enough material from the rod or provide enough friction to ignite the scrapings. Scrape it like you mean it!

3. Pick The Right Fuel

Spark rods don’t light everything on fire. You’ll need natural plant-based fuzz for the tinder on this ignition method. Cotton balls and dryer lint are great choices in the backyard, while cattail seed down, goldenrod fluff, and milkweed down are great materials to source in the wild. Dry, dead leaves and coarse wood shavings may also seem like a fit, but those usually won’t light with sparks alone. You’d typically need the open flame of a match or lighter to get them going.

4. Move the Rod, Not the Scraper

I often see beginners throwing more tinder around than sparks. Thankfully, there’s an easy way to correct that flawed technique. If you hold the scraper still and pull the rod away (imagine you’re pulling the cord to start a chainsaw or push mower) you won’t knock the tinder all over the place. You’ll still get your shower of hot sparks, without the destructive follow-through of the scraper.

How do you use your ferro rods? Ever faced these problems? Tell us your methods by leaving a comment.

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