Fire is essential for survival, and anyone who has spent any time back country camping normally has two or three ways to start a fire in their kit. I believe that everyone should practice starting a fire in a safe controlled area using a variety of techniques such as the ferro rod, flint & steel, the friction bow line, even a mirror/magnifing glass lens until you have mastered each of them and any other way possible. Under stress in a survival situation is not the time to realize it’s much harder than it looks.
My family does it the hard way to build the skills and to learn to appreciate the easy way. Matches run out when you need them, they blow out when you need them, or they get wet and don’t work when you need them. The same can be said about lighters. So doing things the old way and gaining those skills cannot be bypassed, just because you have some new trick or fancy doodad.
Now on to the topic at hand, how and why should I make my own water-resistant wooden stick Emergency Matches? A match is and always will be much easier than using flint & steel, a ferro rod & magnesium shavings, and tremendously easier than a friction bow line or other primitive techniques. First let’s cover the why. A box of 300 wood stick kitchen matches has an average cost of around a dollar, where as a box of 25 fancy brand name “Storm proof matches” average well over five dollars. Your mileage may vary. The fancy storm proof matches burn longer and are coated with wax to protect them from moisture, and they are harder to blow out. So let’s make a bunch of equivalent matches as inexpensively as possible. That way we will build up a bunch that we can use, as needed. It’s not hard and you probably have most of what you need already.
Before I start into the list of needed items, you should find a place to work that won’t get you in trouble with your spouse. I do not recommend the kitchen due to the potential of dripping wax and the extra work required to clean it up. So now that you’ve got a place in mind where you won’t get into trouble, here is what you need:
1.) A box of wood stick matches
2.) A source of wax, either an old unscented candle, old broken crayons, or if you want to mass produce the matches, a box of Gulf Wax canning paraffin will make many boxes of matches.
3.) A small coffee cup sized tin, metal cup, or saucepan to melt the wax in along with a small pot to put the tin/cup, or saucepan into. (Thus forming a “double boiler”)
4.) A single roll of toilet paper.
5.) The plastic cartridge holder insert that comes in a box of .22 rimfire ammo. I’ll call it an “ammo tray” for lack of a better term.
You can clean the wax out of the inner melting pan with some work, when you are done making matches. But I picked up a small sauce pan at a local thrift store for less than a dollar. And this pan is now used exclusively for melting wax. You will also need a source of heat, you can use a camping / backpacking stove, single eye hot plate, or whatever suits you. I use a single eye hot plate as it preserves my fuel for my backpacking stove, and is more stable, more on this in a moment. Decide which is least expensive and easier for you.
The Match-Making Process
Now that you have all of your requisite match-making material let’s talk about the process. Make sure when setting up your wax melting area, you take safety into consideration. You want to ensure you have space to move without bumping things, and that the table or counter area is stable. A spill can cause serious burns, so take your time. Let’s prepare one of your items, You will want to take a single square of toilet paper and cut it in half, then each of those pieces in half again. Then take the four pieces and cut them in half. The 8 pieces should be approx. 1” x 2”. Due to the current shortage of toilet paper, you could instead use paper towels. But you will have significantly more folding and cutting to do to get the paper towel pieces down to the suggested 1″ x 2″ size.
Let’s set up your wax melting area. Set up your chosen source of heat place your pan on top of the heat source. Place some water in the pan and your tin/cup into the water. Ensure that the water does not come past the half way point of the tin/cup/saucepan. If possible you want to avoid the tin/cup from floating. Chasing a floating tin around a pot of hot water is just asking for a burn so try to avoid this. Place some wax into the tin/cup. A small amount is good to start. You can always add more later in the process. As the water heats up the wax will begin to melt. For safety attempt to keep the water below the boiling point by adjusting your heating source.
Take one match and a single piece of the cut 1″ x 2″ paper and wrap the paper around the match just below the match head. Then holding the rolled toilet paper and match between your fingers dip the first ¼ inch of the match into the liquid wax. Moving your fingers back to the wood of the match, continue to dip the rest of the paper covered match into the wax. With some practice you will be able to keep the match near the side of the Tin/Cup dragging the match back along the edge thus preventing the paper from unrolling. The initial dip sort of seals the wax, the paper and the match together and running it along the edge when dipping the rest compresses it all together. If you have to, then re-wrap it by just using the tip of your finger. Then, as the wax dries on your finger scrape the wax back into the liquid wax. It will re-melt in seconds. Take your newly created emergency match and place it wax up into your ammo tray to dry completely. It only takes a couple of minutes for the matches to dry. The more you repeat the process the better you will get at it, and the less wax you’ll get on your fingers.
I have found that once you convert an entire box of matches into emergency matches, you will want to store them in something that is easy to grab and go. This is the second part of the process, and the easiest. If you have an empty snap-top plastic pill bottle laying around remove the original label, (for safety and OPSEC) and fill the bottle with your new matches. This can be any small waterproof bottle. It just needs to have internal dimension that are slightly longer than your matches. On the empty cardboard match box there is normally a strike strip on either side. Cut the strike strip off of both sides of the empty match box and cut them in 2” long pieces. Then fold each 2″ long strike strip in half, with the strike side facing inward. After this is done, place the folded strike strip in the cap of the medicine bottle. A thick ball of cotton (such as from a vitamin pill bottle) will keep things from rattling around. Repeat this, with additional bottles, until you’ve protected all of your newly re-worked matches. This is kind of important, because after going through the work of making these fantastic matches, you want to be able to light and use them when you really need them.
Important Safety Note: Make sure that the matches all go into the bottle in the same direction, with their heads facing away from the end of the bottle with the striker material!
I have been able to fill eight normal size medicine bottles with the upgraded matches from one box of matches. That’s around 37 upgraded matches per bottle. I have also found that the flame is significantly larger on these upgraded matches. I also have also compared the burn time of the upgraded match to the burn time of the normal match. The upgraded matches burn quite a few times longer than a normal match. Your mileage may vary, but the results have remained remarkably stable throughout my testing.
Once you have made some of the upgraded matches and are familiar with the process, if you want you can try this short but additional step to further increase the burn time and size of the flame produced by each match. When you take your cut piece of paper, fold down the top third making it a bit thicker, and wrap it around the match just below the match head, as before. Continue with all the other steps exactly the same way and this match will truly be worth the extra effort.
While doing some additional testing I have compared matches made with the paper cut from toilet paper, and those made with paper cut from paper towels. While the Toilet Paper matches are smaller in size and the paper towels are a bit fatter, they seem to burn with remarkable similarity. I can fit more of the Toilet Paper matches into a medicine bottle, but other than that, I haven’t noticed a big difference. More testing is required to say which is better. I’ll leave that up to you intelligent folks.
If you’re going to have some down time due to shelter in place, (thank you COVID-19) or any other excuse, it might be a good time to add some inexpensive but dependable fire starters to your kit. Extra bottles make fantastic Christmas presents for like-minded folks. Wash your hands and stay safe.