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Beginner’s Guide to Ferro Rods & How to Use Them

A close-up of a man lighting a fire with a Ferro rod and a survival knife
Lighting a fire with a Ferro rod and a survival knife

I can still remember sitting in front of my fireplace with a ball of torn paper strips, a magnesium rod, and a Ferro rod fire starter. I would shave a little of the magnesium bar onto the paper and then try my best to shower sparks onto the magnesium using the included striker.

I was never sure if I was supposed to use the serrated side or the flat side with the 90-degree spine. I had success with both sides when I was getting started. Still, I had no idea what I was doing.

I would approach the fire starting the process with the idea of hitting that Ferro rod fire starter just right and watching the shower of sparks quickly light the paper on fire. I had no idea how to master that hot spark yet. So, these practice sessions would end with me frantically scraping the Ferro rod over and over until I was either out of breath or a fire started.

A lot has changed.

I want to teach you all about Ferro rods because they are the best survival fire starter there is. I also want to teach you how to use them properly.

What is Ferrocerium

Ferrocerium is an alloy. It’s a mix of metals with lots of hard-to-understand names. Basically, it is a bunch of metals mixed together to promote its ability to start a fire and throw sparks. Because the alloy can do these things so well Ferrocerium is categorized as a pyrophoric alloy.

The mix of metals is cerium, lanthanum, neodymium, and trace lanthanides. It also contains about five percent iron. The alloy was not created just for survival gear but is the striker element for many applications like lighters and cutting torches.

Why Ferro Rods Work

Before this metal alloy people used a sharp piece of flint or chert to strike steel. The shaving of steel produced bright sparks. This is due to the friction and the shaving of a fine piece of metal. Every spark you see is a single piece of metal burning up in the air.

Cerium has a very low ignition temperature that is between 300-350 degrees Fahrenheit. This makes it easy to throw lots of hot sparks with a sharp edge. These sparks can get as hot as 6000 degrees Fahrenheit.

So, you can see how they can be very effective at lighting natural tinder in an emergency situation.

Firestarters That Feature Ferrocerium

Aside from using the Ferrocerium rod by itself, there are a number of fire starting survival products that utilize ferrocerium as the main ingredient in their Ferro rod fire starter tools. I don’t own any of these but if you have softer hands and less skill then something like a Blastmatch fire starter might be perfect for you.

A man starts a fire with magnesium fire steel, fire striker
A man starts a fire with magnesium fire steel, fire striker
  • Magnesium Fire Starter

The magnesium fire starter is a simple device. It is a rectangular piece of magnesium, about 3 inches long and a 1/2 inch thick. It has a small rod of Ferrocerium embedded into the side of it.

There is a small hole in one corner of this fire starter and a bead chain runs through it with a striker, so that you keep both of them together.

The user can scrape off fine layers of the magnesium shavings over the tinder and then use the same striker to scrape sparks from the Ferro rod fire starter. The sparks from the Ferro rod are incredibly hot and they catch the magnesium shavings on fire which also burn white-hot.

  • Exotac Nanostriker

This fire starter is a self-contained Ferro rod and striker that comes in a really neat little pen-sized housing. The Nanostriker looks like some kind of small laser or high-tech piece of EDC equipment and I guess you might consider it just that.

When you unscrew it you find the Ferro rod and striker inside. The Ferro rod is then screwed back into the cap which gives it a bit of a handle and you use the little striker to make your sparks. This fire starter looks great and it’s Ferro so it works but it is very small.

All parts of this thing are small so it is not one of my favorite fire starters. There is an ideal size for your Ferro rods and we will touch on that in the next section.

  • Blastmatch Fire Starter

The Blastmatch is an interesting tool that uses Ferro as its main source of sparks and showers them in a different way. The Ferro rod sits inside of a spring-loaded housing that allows you to push the rod straight down on the tinder you are looking to strike.

By pressing the Ferro rod down it goes back into the housing very easily but pops right back out due to the spring. Doing this will not help you make a fire. However, on the side of the housing, there is a tab that you hold and that tab presses a small striker against the Ferro rod.

As you press the tab against the rod and jam the Ferro back into the housing it creates that friction we are looking for and sends sparks flying. It’s a very cool option for someone with only one hand to operate it.

Ideal Size and Shape of a Ferro Rod

Once you learn to use a Ferro rod effectively, you will come to realize that the right size Ferro rod is enough to last the average person a lifetime!

If you are using a Ferro rod that is a half-inch thick and 6 inches long, which is best, it will literally take you a lifetime of fires to wear that thing out! Unless you are making fire with a Ferro rod on a daily basis. However, efficiency with Ferro means that you’ll only need a few strikes to get the job done.

So, when you are shopping for Ferro rods to add to your survival kits, bug-out bags or camping packs be sure that you buy one that is close to 6 inches in length and 1/2 an inch thick.

A Ferro rod of this size is easy to hold onto when you are striking it and will last a very long time.

How to Use a Ferro Rod

Using a Ferro rod properly involves a lot of things outside of just the rod itself. Even if you can throw sparks effectively you are still not actually using the Ferro rod to start a fire. You are just using it as a light show.

Here we will discuss how to use the Ferro rod to the best of your ability and how to strike it less, make it last longer, and get fire fast.

The Right Tinder

Starting a fire with firesteel.
Use dry tinder to help start your fire

Tinder is essential when starting a fire with a Ferro rod. You need fine, dry tinder that is ready to catch fire. You are not using matches or a lighter with direct flame. You can shower sparks on a pile of small sticks all day and they will never catch on fire for you.

However, if you take a few tufts of dried flowers, strips of river birch bark, or tops of dry cattails, they will go right up from the Ferro sparks.

Striking the Ferro Rod

How you strike the Ferro rod is very important, too. Most of the time people hold the Ferro rod in place and drive the striker or knife down the rod towards the tinder. This will push air towards your sparks which can blow your fire out!

Keep your knife stationary and close to the fire. Then, draw the Ferro rod towards you while pressing it against the blade. This will shower sparks while pulling the rod away from your fire.

Tips for Using a Ferrocerium Rod

Learn Your Angle and Your Pressure

Showering sparks is all about the angle and the pressure that you apply on your Ferro rod. With practice, you will find the angle for your striker and the pressures that work best. I find the best pressure comes from holding a longer striker at one end, which could be an included striker or a knife, and then striking the rod at the far end of the striker.

The space between the two creates a kind of tension that I feel increases the efficacy of the strike. This really works well with thin strikers.

Grease the Groove

It’s hard to get sparks to fly from a brand new rod. The first few strikes will likely yield nothing. So, create a groove from striking down the rod in one spot and keep using that same spot every time you pick up the Ferro rod.

Save your Blade

Sometimes you see people using the knife edge to strike a Ferro rod. This works but it will mess your edge up quickly. Don’t sacrifice the sharp edge of your blade. Buy a survival knife with a 90-degree spine and use that. Or pack another kind of striker.

Pack Tinder

if you aren’t great at sourcing and processing wild tinder then you should pack some cotton balls or dryer lint. They both catch instantly and will make your life much easier. You will also get much more life out of your rod.

Become a Master at Throwing Sparks

Sparks from a magnesium fire steel and fire striker
Sparks from a magnesium fire steel and fire striker

I always carry a lighter. It’s quick and easy, but if I had to choose one fire starting tool for a long-term survival situation it would be a Ferro rod. You can use up matches, you can burn away all your lighter fluid but a Ferro rod is going to start a thousand fires for you if you know how to use it.

With the right Ferro rod and a little practice, you will become a master at throwing sparks and starting a fire with little more than your survival knife. You get some peace of mind in knowing that about yourself. You remove a level of vulnerability in the wild.

Go here for more information about Campfires and Survival fires.