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Making Char Cloth
© 2006

Now available on video!
Char Cloth is probably the best and cheapest form of do-it-yourself fire starter I have ever used. I am amazed at how long I lived before I found out about this really old form of tinder. It is really a method of making Charcoal from a 100% cotton tee shirt.

I have recently re-visited making char cloth because of the many requests I have gotten for more detail on this subject. Rather than just padding the article with more words, I made a movie that shows all the steps. Please take a look and let me know what you think. You can post comments on this video on

If you have any trouble with, you can also download the videos here: broadband or dial-up.

First, I cut up an old black 100% cotton tee shirt. The squares were roughly 2" square, but I didn't take time to measure accurately. I initially cut up about 100 of them, but only used about 50. I needed to test two different sized cans so I used an old peach can for one test batch, and an old tuna fish can for the second. In the photo you can see that I divided up my batch of cotton squares onto the 2 aluminum foil pieces that will cover the lids. The batch of extra squares (I didn't use) are behind the 2 cans. I packed them into the cans loosely. That is, I didn't "jam" them down in. I dropped them in, and where they hit was where they stayed. I should have used a white tee shirt for this test. I couldn't tell if they turned black (like they're supposed to) since they started out black in color. I found out later...

I used two cans (cleaned, of course) and covered them both with heavy duty aluminum foil. Use a sharp pin and punch ONE hole in the top of the aluminum foil. You don't need to use different sized cans. I did just for this test.

Cooking dinner: Since I was cooking dinner anyway on my Weber Charcoal Grill, I did my tests after dinner was finished. I'm glad I did. The smell of charring cotton is not very pleasant.

I took the grate off of the grill and set the cans into the still very hot charcoal briquettes. You can pile the half-burned briquettes around the cans if you want. The whole idea is to get the cans very hot, very fast.

I left the cans on for about 6 minutes. Yes, you can see the smoke escape, both from the pin hole, and the aluminum foil that evidentially was not sealed perfectly tight.

The smoke from the charring cotton is flammable. Another test as to when it is ready to come off the coals is to light the smoke...yes, it burns. When it stops burning, it is ready to come off.

I ate a hurried dinner (or at least part of it) while I waited...checking it twice during the 6 minutes. The smoke did stop at 6 minutes. Interestingly, both cans stopped smoking at the exact same time. If in doubt, leave it for 10 minutes, but no more. Using the tongs shown, I carefully removed the two cans from the charcoal and set them off to the side. I left them there until I went back inside and finished my dinner.

About 15 minutes later, I checked the cans and found the tops cool enough to handle without tools.

It was dark outside by the time I finished, so I brought the two cans inside and set them on two hot pads. I removed the aluminum foil and found that, at least as far as I could see, there was little or no change...but there was. The (black) cotton was still black, but the texture had changed, and now felt more like satin than cotton. You could still make out the texture of each thread, only now it was charcoal, not cotton. It was REALLY COOL.

Several days later, I tried this same test again, only with white cloth. It does, indeed, change to a black color, with the same satin-feel finish to it. The white squares are what I started with; the black "blob" above them is the char-cloth.


I took one piece out at first, put it into an ashtray, and lit it. It started to burn, but slowly, and without flame. When I blew on it, instead of going out, it got hotter. I know that if I had a bunch of tinder on top of this thing it would have caught fire and flamed up.

I then added two or three more pieces, and they lit off the already burning piece of char cloth, even through there still was no flame. Then, like a dummy, I picked up the glass ashtray with my hand, and found it was VERY HOT.

My test pieces (3 in all, now) burned for about 3 to 4 minutes, even with me blowing on them intermittently. I found that even if I did not blow on the char cloth, it kept burning slowly from one side of the cloth to the other. There was virtually no smell. It only took a small spark to light off the Char Cloth. It held the fire for a short period of time that would have allowed me to add more dry tinder and make the fire larger. I am really pleased with the ease of making this "free" fire starter. This would be great stuff to use with flint and steel or a friction-type fire bow.

This char cloth acts like thin stays lit, but it doesn't flame. It gets very hot when you blow on it. Put tinder on top of it - blow - instant flame.

To test my theory, I then lit up a piece of un-cooked cloth. It also lit up right away. However, its initial hot flame died out in 5 to 10 seconds, and no amount of blowing would bring it back. In the woods, I would have had to re-light the cloth. Not good.

The char cloth just kept burning. The more I blew on it, the faster and hotter it burned. With a minimum of 3 to 4 minutes to play with it, I could have collected and started up a very nice bunch of tinder...followed by kindling...followed by etc., etc.

Those old-time pioneers had their stuff together. I now have 2 Altoid cans full of char-cloth; one for home, one for my camping trailer. I printed up labels for them so I wouldn't throw them away thinking they were empty. P.S. The white cloth was from an old pair of my underwear. Next fire starts from my shorts.

I now know how to answer the age old question of "what to do with a charcoal or camp fire after the dinner is finished cooking?" . Make Char Cloth.

On the humorous side, I can't help but giggle at the thought of you sitting around a campfire cutting up a tee shirt or an old pair of underwear while dinner is cooking. What will the neighbors think you're having for dinner?