Ferrocerium rods are great for two reasons. One, they can create an intensely hot spark regardless of weather conditions and two, their name can stump super intense pre-teens in our country’s most challenging spelling bees.
We’ll focus on the former benefit rather than the latter and refer to them as “ferro rods” going forward.
You should note that ferro rods are also known as metal matches, fire steel, mischmetal, magnesium rods, and a few other names, but all these names refer to basically the same thing, even if they are occasionally composed of different materials.
What we are talking about are metal rods, typically made of ferrocerium but also sometimes of magnesium or other composites, that shower intensely hot sparks when struck by a knife’s edge or other striker.
They are an absolute godsend if you are stuck in the woods and an essential addition to anyone’s survival kit. Not sure why you’d want to, but you can store your ferro rod in a puddle, pull it out, and instantly get a spark.
I also want to describe how ferrocerium came about because it has kind of a cool origin story, but I’ll throw that in at the end. You can read all about it as you relax next to that roaring fire you just successfully started with your ferro rod.
It only takes a spark
Using a ferro rod to make sparks is really simple and takes minimal effort. That’s not to say there’s no technique and you should definitely practice with your ferro rod before packing it into your survival bag.
Many ferro rods come with their own strikers, which is convenient. These strikers are definitely sufficient and some of them also double as bottle openers, so you can enjoy a frosty beverage next to your fire. The knock on the included strikers is that they can be of variable quality and are easy to misplace if you detach them to make your sparks.
I prefer to use the spine of my knife. It provides a larger surface and I know that I will never misplace my knife. (I should probably knock on wood here.)
Whatever you do, don’t use the sharp edge of the blade itself. This will dull your knife in a hurry, which could have really bad consequences should you be in a survival situation.
Once you’re using the right edge of your knife, slowly and with some pressure, scrape your knife down the ferro rod. You’re trying to exert enough pressure to remove some of the surface material from the rod.
It might take one or two strokes and that’s it. Boom. A shower of sparkler-sized sparks are produced.
It’s that easy.
Compare that to any of the friction fire methods. The spark you just created with one or two strokes on your ferro rod could take hours and a zillion calories to produce if you’re just rubbing sticks together.
Come to think of it, maybe that’s why I’ve put on some weight in my later years. I’ve probably gained forty pounds in the two decades since I stopped relying on friction fires and finally got a ferro rod. Coincidence?
The other advantage of the ferro rod is that these sparks are far hotter than anything you’ll produce with sticks. This is a tremendous advantage, particularly in wet conditions when you’re trying to light some really stubborn tinder.
Practice makes perfect so don’t be shy about trying your rod out at home before you find yourself in a survival situation. Another great advantage of the ferro rod is that one single rod can be used to start thousands of fires. So practice to your heart’s content.
They really are amazing little inventions.
To get a fire going
Of course, just because you know how to make sparks doesn’t mean you know how to start a fire. To start a fire, you need flammable things like a tinder bundle to catch those sparks and you also need to get proficient with your ferro rod in order to direct those sparks towards your flammable things.
I’ll talk about how to construct a tinder bundle in more detail a little later, but directing the sparks from your ferro rod is quite easy.
For the sake of these instructions, let’s assume you’re trying to light a tinder bundle to make a campfire or survival fire, although, now that I think about it, that might not be the case. Maybe you’ve got some paperwork that you’re trying to get rid of before the feds come knocking, or maybe you just made the final payment on your mortgage and you want to watch that evil, bank enriching document go up in a massive flame. If so, congrats! Let it burn! But for most of you, I imagine you’ll be using your ferro rod to start some sort of wilderness fire, so let’s stick with that assumption going forward
The secret to directing your spark directly at your tinder bundle is to keep your blade or striker stable and move the rod instead. In one hand, hold the blade or striker directly over your tinder. If you hold the blade at about a 45-degree angle, that should direct all sparks straight down onto your intended target.
Touch the ferro rod to your striker, hold the striker steady and pull the rod, not too quickly but with some pressure. Sparks should spring off the bottom of your striker directly onto the tinder.
Ok, now let’s talk about that tinder. A ferro rod will be more like an expensive Fourth of July sparkler than a fire starter if you don’t know how to collect good tinder. Tinder is what catches those insanely hot sparks that your ferro rod throws and turns them into a real flame. So a tinder bundle is basically a loose lump of the most flammable things you can assemble.
Tinder bundles are also referred to as tinder nests because they are often fashioned in the shape of a bird’s nest, but when using a ferro rod, you don’t have to be nearly as precise with your tinder bundle’s shape as you would if you are trying to start a fire with primitive methods.
You can construct your tinder bundle out of anything that will catch a spark and maintain the flame long enough to light your kindling.
Examples of good additions to your tinder bundle that you can find in the forest are really dry grass, thin strips of tree bark, small wood shavings, pine needles, or dry seed husks.
You can also construct a tinder bundle out of things you bring from home. If you’re preparing for your wilderness adventure, you can pre-make tinder bundles by collecting dryer lint or coating cotton balls with a thin layer of Vaseline. Keep either of these items in a dry, secure place to use when the time comes.
If you are thrust into a survival situation without prepared fire starters, you may still have some items on you that can help. Any paper you have with you is a good start. Tear it into thin strips and bundle it together. Duct tape is also a flammable option as are any super greasy foods.
A lot of guides suggest using duct tape as a makeshift handle to your ferro rod. If you’re out of other options, you can simply peel it off and use it for tinder. I’ve personally never used duct tape on my ferro rod, but I did once jokingly put a lighter to my cousin’s fishing rod, only to see it temporarily flame up because it was duct-taped on part of the handle. He didn’t talk to me for a week.
Another great way to use your ferro rod to help you start a fire is to slowly carve off small pieces of your rod as if you were carving out wood shavings. You can then spread the little pieces throughout your tinder. Once your sparks hit these tiny pieces, you’ll get a miniature fireworks display and a near certain ignition.
Kindling is the last intermediary step between the sparks from your ferro rod and roasting marshmallows over a full-blown fire.
Your first thought when you hear the word kindling is probably those boxes of kindling you can buy at Walmart. Those are for making fires in controlled environments like your wood stove or fireplace. Out in the elements, especially in adverse conditions, the kindling you pick should be much smaller.
You can collect a few, larger pieces to use after the small stuff is going, but the bulk of your kindling should be pencil-sized twigs. And you’ll need a lot of it, about as much as you can carry.
You also have to pre-arrange your kindling to receive your flaming tinder bundle. There are a lot of different fire structures or fire lays out there, but the simplest, most reliable structure is a teepee fire.
A teepee fire looks exactly as it sounds, like a teepee. Build a teepee with your smallest kindling that has just enough room in the middle for your tinder bundle. Keep enough space between the individual sticks to allow some air to get through.
Once you have the kindling set up in its teepee shape, you will put the flaming tinder bundle in the middle. As your teepee burns, gradually add larger and larger kindling until the flame is big enough to begin adding your fuel.
You’ve come this far and that fire-starting merit badge is within your grasp, but your fire still needs to be babied a bit. It is really easy, at this point, to smother it by getting ahead of yourself and adding a fuel log that is way too big for your teepee.
You’re using a ferro rod, so killing your fire now isn’t quite as catastrophic as it would be for those who tried to start a fire by agonizingly rubbing sticks together for a few hours, but why make things hard on yourself. Be patient and never add anything bigger than your fire can handle.
Unless you’re Popeye, the fuel logs you’re using at this point should be about the width of your forearm. As with the kindling, collect a lot, especially if you are in a survival situation and need to keep warm through the night. I’d collect two armloads to be safe.
Once you have a few fuel logs successfully lit, you can finally rest easy. You did it! Reward your ferro rod by showering it with compliments. A ferrocerium rod loves a good compliment just as much as any other fire starters do.
The inventor of the ferrocerium rod
I’m a history buff. I don’t like to call myself that because when people hear that they assume I’m a Civil War reenactor for some reason. Maybe I should trim my sideburns. I’m not a reenactor of anything, but I truly love history. I love trying to envision the land as it was before us, which also fuels my love for the outdoors. There’s no place like the wilderness to truly step back in time.
I also like to know who I should be grateful to for the wisdom and tools we use in the wilderness today. In so many cases, I owe gratitude to Native Americans or other native cultures whose incredible knowledge has lasted for hundreds of generations (and will outlast any “knowledge” you got from a Ted Talk or a podcast by another hundred generations).
In this case of the ferrocerium rod, however, we should be thankful for the efforts of a generous genius from Austria, Carl Ferrocerium. Just kidding. His name was Carl Auer von Welsbach. Dr. Carl, as I’ll call him, is known in Austria as the man who “provided humanity with light and fire.”
Not a bad legacy, Dr. Carl!
In his 71 brilliant years on this earth which ended in 1929, Dr. Carl discovered four elements, made the first audio recording in Austria, took the first color photographs there, invented the alloy which is used in ferro rods and in the “flints” found in millions of lighters even today, and invented the incandescent mantle which he used to mass-produce gaslights that illuminated streets across Europe.
He also, apparently, had an “excellent spirit and a big heart,” according to his museum’s website.
Yes, there’s a museum dedicated to the inventor of the ferrocerium rod in Austria. If you make it over there somehow, do give the great man my regards. His fire starter has saved me and millions of others a lot of sweat and tears.
Cheers, Dr. Carl!
A Ferrocerium rod is an amazing fire starter. No doubt. Ferro rods can help you start a warm and toasty fire in the worst possible elements. But don’t let this incredible little tool make you overconfident. Practice using it.
You also need to recognize the importance of tinder. You can use your ferro rod to shower as many sparks as you want, but if you haven’t collected good tinder, you won’t be having any sort of fire.
So learn what makes for good tinder in your area, or prepare your own Vaseline-covered cotton balls or other tinder bundles.
You might have a magical fire starter but you still need to put in some work.
Final, Final Notes
If you somehow landed here while studying for a spelling bee: It’s Ferrocerium. F-e-r-r-o-c-e-r-i-u-m. Ferrocerium. As in: A ferrocerium rod is an excellent fire starter.
Final, Final, Final Note: Put out your fire
Whether you’re burning your paid-off mortgage, practicing fire starting for survival situations, or just having a campfire, put that thing out, down to the last tiny glowing ember.
More than ten million acres were burned in wildfires in the US last year according to the National Interagency Coordination Center. When I was a kid, my grandpa had 40 acres, what we all called the “back forty.” For a kid, it was more than enough to get lost in. I can’t fathom that fire took 252,500 back forties in the past year alone. Be careful. Be beyond careful. Be thorough.