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Fire Starting with Steel Wool

An interesting idea, to start a fire using steel. Steel wool is made up of very fine steel strands. Steel wool is usually made from low-grade carbon steel but can be made of other materials such as aluminum or stainless steel. So how do we make steel flammable at such a low temperature? To cover that we must go into ignition temperature. Ignition temperature is the minimum temperature needed to cause a substance to burn. Ignition temperature is controlled by properties such as density, surface area, and humidity. The manufacturing process increases the steel's surface area. The thin strands are then easily ignited with a spark or current.

We can ignite the steel wool in several ways:

spark - A very small spark will ignite the steel wool. We usually use a ferrocerium rod, otherwise referred to as a flint rod.

current - by making contact with an electrical circuit such as a battery or flashlight.


On the left we have Swedish firesteel made out of ferrocerium (flint rod). Ferrocerium: a pyrophoric alloy of iron with cerium; used for lighter flints. It is capable of igniting spontaneously in air with the use of friction. This alloy of iron and rate-earth metals is used for tools such as Swedish Firesteel and the Blastmatch. It has been used for the flint in lighters and military tracer rounds.

On the right we have the steel wool. Steel wool comes in seven grades. We used (#0000 super fine) grade. This can be purchased at hardware stores and some department stores in the paint section. Steel wool is commonly used to remove paint, lacquer and polish metals.

The very first spark from the firesteel causes the steel wool to ignite. We can place the steel wool with other tinder and start a fire by blowing on the steel wool.

Be careful the rapid oxidation of the steel causes small pieces to fall of and can burn your hand.


Ignition can also be achieved with current. Contact with an energized electrical circuit will cause ignition. We can use a flashlight or a battery to ignite steel wool.

During our testing we tried using MagLite Solitaire flashlight. We remove the flashlight head and expose the bulb. We pull the light-bulb out using our fingers and insert two small pieces of snare wire. We remove the cap of the flashlight and carefully insert the wire without allowing connection. If they connect, they will burn the plastic insert on the flashlight.

The current from the Solitaire was insufficient to cause ignition. Next we tested the Mini-Maglite.

The Mini-Maglite has enough current to get a spark. Next we place the steel wool inside a nest made out of dry grass. By blowing on the ignited steel wool, we can get a fire.

As a final test, we use D cell batteries and steel wool. We complete the circuit with the use of a thin piece of steel wool. We place the steel wool in the nest and voilà we have fire.

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