One chilly morning I struggled to start a fire in the wood stove. I would remove a newspaper from the recycle basket, crumple it, light a match, and try to get the flaming paper to last long enough to ignite the surrounding kindling. I couldn’t help but feel guilty over the inordinate number of newspapers I was using up.
“Hmmmm,” I thought. “Burned paper can’t be recycled, it’s not safe to use charcoal starter indoors, and buying solid fire starter gets expensive. What’s a Savage Sister to do?” Then I remembered attending an outdoor survival seminar presented by Peter Kummerfeldt. He’d demonstrated a nifty fire starter using cotton balls and petroleum jelly. (See www.outdoorsafe.com for more information on Peter and his survival classes.)
So I gathered supplies and began mixing the petroleum jelly and cotton with my fingers. Eww! What a messy job! Since I’m always tweaking things in an effort to make them better, I developed an easier way to make the fire starter. The end result works so well, I don’t have to steal newspapers from the recycle basket anymore.
But what if you don’t use a wood-burning stove? Well, in addition to using fire to heat homes and survive in the wild, the ability to start a fire is important in a variety of settings such as camping, hiking, outdoor cooking, and barbecuing.
The benefits of this fire starter are many: It won’t spill or evaporate; it’s unaffected by water or freezing (do shake off any water before fluffing the cotton, however); it’s portable, packable, and wind resistant (it stays put when you press a small portion of fluff to wood); and it’s also economical and easy to light.
Here’s how to make Fiercely Frugal Fire Starter using the Savage Sisters’ simple system.
Approximate time required: 15 minutes.
- 1 package (100 count) cotton balls (I prefer the “jumbo” size, and they must be 100% cotton. I buy mine at the dollar store.)
- 2 jars (16 ounces total) white petroleum jelly (I also buy this at the dollar store and prefer the “baby fresh” fragrance.)
- *Double boiler (If you don’t know what a double boiler is, see definition below.)
- Wooden spoon
- The empty bag the cotton balls came in or a gallon-size zip-top bag
- A container in which to store the finished fire starter such as the empty petroleum jelly jars, canning jars, or just leave it in the zip-top bag you used for kneading (see below)
*TIP: I place a dark-colored marble or two in the bottom of the double boiler so if the water boils away, the heat will cause the marbles to clatter around as an alarm. The dark colors show up in the water and remind me to remove them before dumping the water down the sink. Whenever I’ve used clear marbles, I’ve had to pick them out of the garbage disposal afterwards.
With the spoon, scoop the petroleum jelly into the top portion of a double boiler. The spatula is handy to scrape out the last bits clinging to the jar.
Place the double boiler on a burner turned to low heat. Melt the jelly, stirring occasionally. Carefully move the pan off the burner and dump in the cotton balls. Stir gently until the cotton has absorbed the melted petroleum jelly.
With the tongs, pick up as many of the saturated cotton balls as you can and hold them over the pan for a moment to let the cotton cool slightly before inserting it into the bag. Repeat as necessary. Then knead the bag to make sure the still-warm jelly and cotton are evenly distributed.
Voila! You’ve created a great fire starter that burns an average of 6 to 7 minutes per cotton ball, plenty long enough to ignite dry tinder around it.
If you have plans for the fire starter other than simply keeping it handy to your wood-burning stove or fireplace, you can transfer it now to suitable containers. I like to fill empty pill bottles, match cases, or 35mm film containers and keep one in my emergency kit and another in a day pack used for outdoor adventures. If you use an attractive recycled glass or metal container, the fire starter also makes a great gift. I gave a square jar of it to Diana for Christmas last year. She loves the fire starter and uses it every time she builds a fire in her wood-burning stove.
Here’s how to use your new concoction, keeping in mind that in order to burn, fire needs oxygen, fuel, and heat.
- Fluff a ball of fire starter (oxygen)
- Place the fluffed fire starter in the stove, fireplace, barbecue, etc., and then put kindling or other dry tinder over it (fuel)
- Strike a match, lighter, or flint to ignite the fire starter (heat)
Now you can cozy up to the stove with a book and cup of tea and enjoy the warmth. Or toast marshmallows over a campfire, grateful you didn’t have to make the kids wait while you struggled to light the wood. No matter how you end up using the fire starter, we “warmly” wish you the best of success.
Please use extreme caution when heating the petroleum jelly. The Savage Sisters frown on kitchen fires and injuries and urge you to take care in avoiding them. Of course, never fail to supervise children if they are in the vicinity when you’re either making or using the fire starter. Also, be sure to read our Legal Babble page.
A double boiler consists of two saucepans that fit one on top of the other. To use, partially fill the larger saucepan on the bottom with water and bring it to a simmer or boil. Place the smaller, inner saucepan on top and use the resulting indirect heat to melt the petroleum jelly. Double boilers also work for melting wax for candlemaking or even for melting chocolate and making custards and sauces. If you don’t have a double boiler, you can improvise by using a large saucepan and a bowl, or two saucepans. If necessary, separate the upper and lower pans with a heat-resistant spacer of some sort, such as a trivet or canning-jar rings.
Written by Fiercely Frugal Savage Sister Jennifer