Monday, January 23, 2012

Magnesium Fire Starter - A Disapointment

I've decided to make January fire month! What an awesome name for a month. I love fire! This is the second post in a series on ignition sources.

You cannot make fire without an ignition source. For the next few posts I am going to highlight the most popular ignition sources. I will also review a few fire making tools, show you some novel ways to make fire, and give tips for using all of them.

Go to a camping store. In the section devoted to fire starting you will probably find some waterproof matches, maybe a windproof lighter, if it is well stocked you may see a firesteel. One item you will almost definitely find is a magnesium fire starter. It's that silver block.

These fire starters have been a mainstay for years. My dad used one as a kid. I've found lots of places selling them on the web that claim they are "government issue". I cannot find any evidence that the government ever actually issued them, although it would not surprise me.

They are simply a block of magnesium with a small ferrocerium rod attached to one side. Magnesium shavings light at a fairly low temperature, about 880 degrees Fahrenheit, and burns hot at 5,600 degrees Fahrenheit. The idea is to shave off a small pile of magnesium and then light it with sparks from the ferrocerium rod.

The magnesium fire starter I purchased was made by Coghlan. These are the most common. Many people make them. While I could not find any details, I suspect that some manufacturers use a higher quality of magnesium than other. Why do I say this? Because the  Coghlan magnesium fire starter was almost impossible to light, but I have seen videos online of people starting a fire right away with other brands. It seems that the company "Doan" has the best reputation.

The problem with all magnesium firestarters is getting the shavings off the bar. You are supposed to use your knife blade a whittle off tiny slivers of magnesium. This is increadably hard and time consuming. In a survival situation it would be very difficult. I worked for about fifteen minutes and only got a pile about half the size of a dime. I ended up taking my drill press to it so I would have enough shavings for a demonstration! Drilling through the magnesium was, no joke, as hard as drilling through soft steel.

I gave up and used a drill

After I got enough shavings I piled them together and tried to light them. First, let me say that gathering the shaving was difficult. They would blow away like dust with the slightest wind. Also, they were so small the fell into every crack and crevice. They are not an ideal medium.

The ferrocerium rod worked great. I'm sure I could make a fire with just it, ignoring the magnesium. Here is a video of the process:

Notice a couple things. First, it took a while to light. Second, the savings were easily scattered when I over shot the ferrocerium rod. Third, it does not look to me like the magnesium lit by the sparks. It looks like the sparks lit the grass, which lit the magnesium!

The magnisium fire starter did poorly in my tests. I will not waste space in my pack with one. There are better ways to start a fire. If you do want to use a magnesium fire starter I highly recommend you buy a quality one and practice with it. They are hard to use! 

Magnesium shavings themselves are a good tinder. I can see how a small bag of shavings in your fire starting kit could be a asset. They will light when wet and burn at a very high temperature.  

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