Professor LawDog’s School of Survival and Mayhem

In my vehicle I have a roll of extra-fine steel wool in one of those home-vacuum-sealed plastic baggies, and two 9-volt batteries in another vacuum-pack.

I was recently asked why I had these things, and I replied, “That’s my fire kit, duh.”

The person who asked the question looked at me like I was speaking Hindi. They had no idea what I was talking about.

In shock, I asked some other people — and none of them had a clue, either.


All right class, gather around the BBQ pit.

Observe that inside the BBQ pit we have five feathersticks making a nice little tipi — what?

You have no idea what a featherstick is?

Oh, gods, just shoot me now.

Okay. Get yourself some dry sticks bigger than your thumb, but not as big around as your forearm.

Now, place one end of the stick on something safe — not your knee! On something solid that we won’t mind nicking a bit with our knives.

Take a firm grip on the other end. The end your are holding is the tip. The end on the table is the base.

Using your knife — you all do have knives, right? Take your knife and about three inches from the base, shave a thin curl of wood towards the base and leave it attached.

Rotate the stick a bit, and shave another curl — leaving it attached. Rotate again, move a bit up the stick and shave another curl. Keep doing this until the entire stick is all fluffy and curly.

This is a featherstick. Now, make four more and bear in mind that Professor LawDog is the only person around here authorized to produce blood at this time. Thank you.

Now that you have five feathersticks, place them in the BBQ base up and tip down in the form of a tipi. Leave enough room inside — what?

You don’t know what a tipi is. How about a wigwam? Ah.

Stack your five feathersticks tip down in a shape reminiscent of the conical dwellings constructed of skins used by the indigenous peoples of the North American Great Plains.

Someone in the Registrars Office is getting shot for this one, I’m here to tell you.

Anyhoo, leave enough space inside your construction for the steel wool.

Take your steel wool and expand it a bit. Fluff it up until it’s somewhere between the size of a tennis ball and a softball. You may wish to stick some wood chips or small sticks inside the fluffy mass, but that’s up to you.

Place the steel wool inside of the cavity you have left in your featherstick construction.

Now, take a common nine-volt battery and rub it gently on the exposed parts of the steel wool. Yes, sparks. Those are expected. Rub a bit more and then blow gently on your flaming steel wool.

Steel — even steel wool — burns with a lot of heat. The steel wool burns hot enough to easily — there you go — ignite the wood curls on the feathersticks and with a bit of tending … We Have Made Fire!

And that is the reason there is vacuum-packed steel wool and 9-volt batteries in my vehicle. Any battery of three volts or more can be used to ignite the steel wool — I have done so with a 6-volt battery out of my SureFire flashlight — but the top-mounted contacts of the 9-volt make it easier to use.

Now that we have fire here — and over there a small encampment of peacenik socialist pacifists who probably have small things of value and are no doubt in need of some excitement to liven up their day — what?

Yes, I know that’s the Faculty Lounge, so?

You’re not serious!

Who the hell put a ‘No Pillaging’ clause in my contract!?


What, again?
What the hell?

64 thoughts on “Professor LawDog’s School of Survival and Mayhem”

  1. Isn’t this the stuff you learn in Cub Scouts? I did.

    Oh, the BSA is a anti-human rights front of repression that no right thinking parent would let their child be influenced by.

    Right… You believe that while freezing in the dark -30 temps after you hit that deer. Me I’ll stay warm, Thank you very much.


  2. I learned that stuff in the Boy Scouts. Being able to make fire in a variety of different ways is useful. We all figured out it was much easier to have a lighter on hand though.

  3. Certain asumptions regarding your target audience operating here:

    a. No, those folk probably have no knife if they are beyond the kitchen door.

    b. They will probably develop a rash if they pick up a stick.

    c. If you didn’t specify that the steel wool not be a soap-impregnated SOS pad, well…

    Nice try though. 🙂

  4. Dawg: too funny. Just one question though. How big is a baseball or softball? roflmao

  5. I think my sides are splitting from laughter- especially at bob’s comment.

  6. Thanks for the reminder of my days in the boy scouts. I remember being required to start a fire with 1 match and doing it with zero matches.

  7. Oh, my GAWD! Don’t you know that you’re enlarging your carbon footprint and contributing to global waaaaarming?

    I…am alerting Al Bore, I mean, Gore, right this very instant.

  8. I’ve done it with a D-cell battery too. It takes a little longer, but it still works. You just have to thin the steel wool in the middle so there’s a place for a hot-spot to start.

    But definitely a lot easier than using a bow and stick, or flint and steel…

  9. I remember using the large lantern batteries, with one strand of the BIG strand steel wool stretched across to light cigarettes while on watch in the engine room of a US Navy Destroyer. (The large stuff that the military gave us for scrubbing wouldn’t burn, but it did glow yellow, more than enough to light up a smoke.)

  10. One of many, many Scout lessons to be sure.

    And a surefire way to start those campfires on the rainy, drizzly nights that always, and I mean ALWAYS, coincided with the final night’s awards ceremony.

    Oh, BTW excellent instructions LawDog.

  11. So, I probably shouldn’t keep the steel wool I use for detail sanding in the same junk drawer as my spare batteries?

    Now you tell me.

  12. Thanks for the basic survival refresher course. I just found another excellent use for SWMBO’s vacuum sealer. I’m not throwing away my flint and steel yet, though; sometimes it’s a good thing to have a belt as well as suspenders.


  13. Pfft. In my CAR? Where all that lovely flammable gasoline is stored?

    Gas. Wood. Cigarette lighter thrown from a distance.


    (I am, of course, kidding. Thanks for the tip, LawDog!)

  14. Bob beat me to the reminder that the folks who don’t know how to do this are the same ones who cannot believe I carry a knife (actually, I carry two, but who’s counting?).
    Very thorough and amusing instructions, though.

    At what point, though, will the rest of us be authorized to produce blood, Prof. LawDog?

  15. *ahem* I didn’t know how to make fire this way, and I always have a leatherman in my handbag(or sometimes on my person). Thanks for this fantastic info.

  16. I knew right where you were headed, Mr. Dog. I’d say, “Don’t give away the Scout’s best secrets,” but every one you teach is one who’ll leave you alone when things get rough.

  17. I prefer the everlasting match, magnesium and steel.

    If my memory serves though, why not just keep some kaliumpermanganate in the car? If I remember right, it’s ignitable by either mixing it with sugar and a little water, and pouring anti-freeze(glycerin) on the mix. Or with car battery acid(sulphuric acid), without the added sugar and water. It can also be used to disinfect water, higher concentration can be used to clean wounds. All-around great to have in survival situations.

  18. Kewl! I wonder if that’s in The Dangerous Book For Boys? If not it should be.

    My father always carried a knife at school – I think it was in the school regulations. But he’s 86. It was a different time……

  19. Heh-heh. Quite ingenious for a Monday morning , LawDog ! They didn’t teach us quite so elaborately in Girl Scouts…

  20. Not a bad idea, but I’ve found a back-up of a butane lighter and votive candle to be a good one too.

  21. Kalium permanganate? Try asking for THAT at the Sears store by the water softener stuff… The pimply kid behind the counter there won’t know what you’re talking about. Me, I never like the purple finger syndrome that accompanies it anyways.

    I allways have something that cuts, what usually surprises others is the 2nd and often 3rd flashlight. But they find out about them when they have forgot their own, so they don’t usualy winge about it.

  22. The steel wool & battery trick is always fun, but for practicality’s sake my big bag of stuff in the trunk contains a plastic bagged pile of fire starter sticks, a couple of disposable lighters and some waterproof matches.

  23. All of you proposing more -um- [i]urbane[/i] mothods of fire-starting are missing the point:

    This one is [b][i]KEWL![/b][/i]

    I can truthfully say it led to my not being alone in my tent on a group-camp many moons ago…

    And no, before anyone asks, I wasn’t joined by a Boy (or any other sort of) scout. She was my favorite sort of WILD-life: The double-breasted bed-thrasher.


  24. I thought steel didn’t burn? *ducks & runs*

    Seriously, I knew about building the small tipi, but I hadn’t known about feathering the sticks or the steel wool. As a girl scout who they didn’t have playing with the fire (leader’s husband did that – real helpful that was), we used wax/sawdust egg carton thingies as tinder.

  25. Another item to keep in a sealed baggie, cotton balls impregnated with vaseline.

    will burn hot in the rain

  26. Wouldn’t it be easier to just drop 2 or 3 LIGHTERS in the zip lock bag????

    Just wondering…..

  27. I’m no survival expert, but I have been camping in rainy weather, and the first thing I learned was that lighters only light dry fuel. Matches aren’t much better. When you most need warmth for survival (rather than comfort) in the great outdoors, you’re probably in an area that’s been rained on until everything is soaked through. Boy Scouts might still be able to find bits of dry fuel here and there, but if you’re freezing to death you don’t have the time to look very far. Nor can you carry much with you (unless you can count your car’s gas tank as available fuel…)

    Lawdog’s steel wool and battery is a new trick to me. I haven’t tried it, but it sounds like it would make more heat than a wax firestarter, more than enough heat to light feathersticks even after a weeklong rain, and in spite of mist drifting in from all sides. It’s lighter and more compact than anything else I would trust in that situation. So I think I’ll be making an addition to the emergency kit in my truck…


  28. Lighters? Well, I could imagine a scene in which you’re wandering through a store after Homo Looterius has taken all the matches and lighters and so on, and you need a fire.

    Knowing that a 9v battery and some soapless steel wool will give you a fire is a handy little piece of knowledge. Is it every day you need survival skills? No, that’s why it’s called survival – in 1% of situations, it’ll mean you’re standing while everyone else isn’t.

    PS: Boy Scout Fieldbook (not Handbook)

  29. Okay, I went out to the garage and found the 0000 steel wool that I was using, with acetone, to strip the finish off a rifle stock.

    Where do I send the bill for new eyebrows?

  30. Survival 101 Oudtshoorn – Infantry School instructors 1972.
    Now I start fires using a plastic bag or even better, the bottom of a soda can. But the steel wool is still the handiest unless you get a good flint and steel.

  31. Do you carry a handful of acorns so you can grow some fuel for the fire too?

    Strike-a-Fires require no matches, are cheap and burn for quite a while to get wet kindling going, and if you’ve got a butane lighter and a decent surplus store in the area, trioxane bars are cheap and exceptionally hot.

    IMO, methods like the steel wool thing are to be learned in case that’s all that’s on hand, but when I’m preparing supplies, I go with the more practical methods.

  32. I don’t know if you can still buy calcium carbide but I still have a tin of it.

    Store it in 35mm film canisters and if you need a fire, just dump a bit where you want the fire. Get it wet by spitting on it or whatever and get a spark close.

    Wet calcium carbide produces acetelyne (sp?) or something close to it.

    I learned about that, the steel wool and 9v and other good things in my 4 yrs of survival courses offered by a retired CmdSgtMaj US Army Special Forces in the town I grew up in. I was lucky.

  33. I’ll have to try that! Where could one acquire the best steel wool for such an adventure?

  34. KD, I don’t know about you, but I can always find a few sticks (I do live in the Evergreen State, so there may be a reason for that…). And a little steel wool and a battery makes a fine fire kit. The Strike-a-Fires and such have never interested me all that much. They may be convenient, as you say, but I’ve never had a problem with feathering some kindling and starting a fire with flint, steel wool, or a lighter (depending on conditions and availability). Of the options, ‘Dog’s method is best for wet conditions, is cheap, and doesn’t take too much effort. I see nothing impractical about the method.
    I may just be a country boy, though. Hell, I wasn’t even in Boy Scouts for very long. I learned this stuff because you never knew when you might need it (hell, the wood stove was usually dry, but the firewood wasn’t, so it was actually useful to learn a few methods of getting it started).

  35. Don’t forget the lint from your clothes dryer lint trap. Just a pinch about the size of a cotton ball will help get any fire going. I keep some in a 35mm film canister with an extra match or two thrown in. I wear a lanyard with a firestarter on it when in the field. I practically sh%$ Bic lighters on command, too.

  36. 19 years ago I had a Fijian show me how to make fire by rubbing two sticks together – ISTN. Big stick with groove held against your chest and between knees at an angle to the ground while kneeling, little stick in groove – push back and forth really fast for a goodly while. Smoldering will become a coal … eventually.

    No matter the method dry tinder and kindling is the key – gather twice as much as you think you need and be ready to go back for more.

  37. Interesting. My fire starter of choice was always the big block o’ magnesium that I would shave with my Cold Steel knife.

  38. It always amazes me what folks don’t know. One handy bit of advice: During the run-up to Hurricane Georges, I was late getting to the store. The area specifically for candles was naturally stripped bare. However, it appears that no one else had thought to check the Kosher food aisle for Passover candles…

  39. Or for some real fun: Just bring lithium. Guaranteed to start a fire in wet conditions(you light it with water…) Potassium and Sodium would also work, but are a little more likely to explode instead of burn.

    But the real reason I bring it up is that you find it in rechargable batteries. Which are almost everywhere these days. So if you’re lost in the woods, it’s wet, the lighter ain’t working and your cellphone is dead, at least you can cut up the battery to make fire(if you have no knife, get creative, not sure I’d recommend mash-with-rock though.)

  40. Good Tuesday morning the 24th, Law Dog !

    Just came by to say hello and see What you were up to !

    Left you ‘special blessings’ on my blog today !

    Be Safe,
    Loving Annie

  41. Well, see, the thing about this is that the steel wool burns HOT, and generally long enough to start cooking your wet tinder. So while starting the fire with the battery is inherently KEWL, it’s the steel wool tinder that’s the real survival secret. Even if you HAVE matches, using the steel wool as the starter will let you light a fire in wet circumstances.


  42. Go back and read what Kaerius said…

    Just bring lithium. Guaranteed to start a fire in wet conditions(you light it with water…)

    But the real reason I bring it up is that you find it in rechargable batteries.

    Which, as he points out, are located in your now-dead cellphone that you have been futily trying to call for help on. (screaming “Can you hear me now?!?” only works if teh towers are still up and near enough to help. After a major hurricane, or in the middle of a wilderness, your cell phone is probably “useless” in a day or two. . . unless you start thinking of it as “supplies” and not “gadget”. . . )

  43. Not to be a pedantic a$$, (well, yes, actually, I am)but a rechargeable lithium ion battery uses lithium compounds; not the pure metal as in the non-rechargeable lithium metal battery. Cutting open a rechargeable lithium ion battery wouldn’t help you in starting a fire, while cutting open a Li battery may do so whilst you are sawing away. So if you want to try this method, get someone that you don’t like to do the sawing.

    Lawdog’s suggested method is safer and works well.

    Oh, also, the finer the steel wool, the better. We always used 000 grade for our shennanigans.

  44. Yep, that works real well.

    Another thing to think about is to use cedar bark as posted on PawPaw’s site. Up my way, white birch bark works well.

    But, as you pointed out, those thin shaving do work.

  45. I knew about the steel wool and battery, but didn’t know about feather sticks. Don’t leave the battery in the fire folks. I saw someone do that once. I carry a Magnesium bar with built in flint everywhere along with a good folder knife. But then I’m one of those folks that thinks the TEOTWAWKI is just around the corner, or at least could be. Magnesium will burn under water and at several thousand degrees. Starting a fire with ice is fun too!

  46. Yes, I was wondering about what compounds of lithium were combustible when contacted by water. Long ago, in the Boy Scouts, as a matter of fact, that was used in a campfire starter skit, where one Scout asked for water and another Scout brought him water which he sipped and refused as being “Camp Water”! Spat into the campfire it burst into flames.
    Very popular

  47. For anyone who is just wanting to carry something to light a fire… Wait till the 4th of July.

    Go to the fireworks stand.

    Buy Black Cat Strobes.

    Seriously they’re basically just a magnesium fire lighter, they burn hot, and will catch your tinder easily. If your wood still isn’t catching simply throw another on your burning tinder. It’s always worked for me.

  48. gpphgrwavI know it sounds silly, but you know what else works really well?

    Ping pong balls. They’ll make a flame 8″ high and burn for a good 15-20 seconds. I keep an eight-pack in my GTHOD pack.

    (Get The Hell Outta Dodge)

  49. First off, Steel can’t burn, Rosie O’Dykell even said so. Oh…but, she might be using her batteries for other purposes.

    Anyway, thanks for the lesson. I had absolutely no knowledge of how to start a fire without a match or my handy BBQ Grill lighter.

  50. I knew about steel wool, but I have one modification. I run wires from the battery to the wool, keeps me from burning myself, which I did once or twice before I got smart and fast. Of course, BSA also taught me to get water and food pretty blasted much anywhere, and I’m amazed more people don’t know what I consider so simple.

  51. I actually add a third ingredient to mine… Three film canisters of potassium perchlorate. Sprinkle some of the steel wool, or in it, and a bit more on your tinder, and you’re golden.

  52. Farmgirl, how do you manage to keep yourself from using up your firestarters? I think I’d probably have them used up pretty quickly if I got bored. They do work well, though. Just can’t imagine them lasting past August.

  53. Drew–

    Willpower, bud.

    Well, that and buying a buttload of them so I have some to play with and some to start fires with.

  54. If you sre carrying this stuff in your car/truck, why not just pack afew extra road flares? 2400 degrees F for about 15 minutes – if you can’t start a fire with that, you might as well roll up in a fetal ball and pack it in.
    -Bigranvil, Mtn Home, ID

  55. Very cool. And don’t forget that even an empty lighter still gives you flint and steel sparks.

  56. Bigranvil–
    Road flares are a possibility, but why use fifteen minutes worth of flame that you have to pay more for when five minutes will do the trick?
    There’s also the issue of space. If you’re packing a Get The Hell Out Of Dodge kit, you want it to be of a size that you can carry in a backpack as well as in the trunk or behind the seat.
    If roads are clogged/damaged beyond driving, if your car breaks down, if you run out of gas, and your survival kit is a big tub in the trunk… what do you do? You can’t run with a big ol’ tub, can’t climb a tree with it, or swim across a river.

  57. Very nice, ‘dog. Anything that helps me make fire more quickly, using common household items, gets an A+ in my book. Knew the steel wool trick, but not the batteries. I see experimentation in my future.

  58. To confirm: the gray stuff in a CR123 battery is good for about 5-7 seconds of really hot fire. Wear rubber gloves and keep it dry until you’re ready, then a few drops of water will start it. Don’t try this in the BBQ pit or on the sidewalk: it’s hot enough to damage concrete, and you’re not going to be able to put it out before it’s done.

    On second thought, don’t try it at all. If you must, tell the medics you learned about it at Daily Kos, and deny that you’ve ever heard of Lawdog or me.

  59. If I tell the paramedics that I've never heard of "Anonymous", they'll be checking for other signs of brain damage. 🙂

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