Lighting a fire with book matches can burn your fingers! Use these tested tips to do it safely.

Light My Fire!

On numerous occasions, I’ve needed to light something where I didn’t really have the right “tool” to do it without also burning my fingers or something else I considered valuable . . . or things just smoldered, instead of burned.  What’s a cruiser to do?

Necessity is the mother of invention.  In several different situations, Dave and I looked around the boat and tried different things until we came up with some pretty good solutions.  No, we didn’t use the outboard gas (extremely dangerous — don’t!) or the diesel fuel . . . or even the motor oil or ATF.

Lighting a fire with book matches can burn your fingers! Use these tested tips to do it safely.Lighting a Gas Stove or Grill

The best tools for lighting a gas stove or grill that doesn’t have its own igniter are either a butane lighter with a long nose, like that pictured, or kitchen matches.  But sometimes all we could get were little cigarette lighters or book matches.  Both put our fingers in jeopardy!

Just lighting a piece of paper didn’t work too well — it tended to smolder rather than produce a nice flame.  Then we harkened back to pioneer days — cooking grease was the answer!

Lighting a fire with book matches can burn your fingers! Use these tested tips to do it safely.Twist a piece of paper into a roll or use a strip of cardboard, then dip it in cooking oil.  At various times, we used bacon grease, leftover cooking oil in a pan, or just our cheapest vegetable oil.  Light the end that has the oil on it.  This produced a great little taper with a nice flame that burned slowly enough to keep our fingers safe, but worked well to light the primary fire.

In the photo at right, I’ve used a small piece of a used paper towel and a couple of drops of vegetable oil.  Curious to see how long it really would burn, I timed it — it had a nice flame for over 30 seconds before getting close to my fingers.

I’ve also used a little twist of waxed paper and it also produced a nice flame, but burned much faster.

Lighting a Bonfire or Trash Fire

Yes, burning trash can be controversial.  However, when the local custom was just to dump trash into the ocean or in a ditch, we thought that it was better to burn what we could.  A firestarter wouldn’t always do the job by itself, though — and we didn’t always have one.

Lighting a fire with book matches can burn your fingers! Use these tested tips to do it safely.Many times, we needed something that would burn longer to get damp kindling going for a bonfire, or coax trash into burning.  Credit Dave’s daughter Sheila for this idea:  Loosely stuff some dry paper trash (newspaper is good if you have some) into a toilet paper roll with the ends sticking out.  Again, use a little cooking oil or other fat on the tube and paper and tuck it into the burn pile with the end sticking out to light, then light it.

Instead of cooking fat, you can also use a squirt of charcoal lighter fluid if you have any — but be careful lighting it!

Another solution comes from my Girl Scout days:  candle kisses.  If you have some old bits of candles on board, cut them into 1″ lengths and wrap them in waxed paper like a Tootsie Roll.  Tuck one in at the bottom of the burn pile and light the waxed paper end.  While this works really well, we almost never had candles aboard!

Lighting Charcoal without Charcoal Lighter Fluid

While most boats have gas grills, some (including many charter boats) use charcoal — and charcoal can also be great for a beach barbecue if you’re in an area without much driftwood or dead branches ashore.  Outside the US and Canada, though, charcoal lighter fluid isn’t nearly as easy to find as charcoal (although it is common in certain locales).

Trying to light charcoal by laying down paper and then mounding up the charcoal over it and lighting the charcoal frankly doesn’t work well.

A much better solution is to save a coffee can or other large can and cut both ends out.  You don’t need to cut air holes in the can — instead, place a couple of pieces of charcoal, sticks or stones under the bottom end so that it’s not flush with the ground and air can enter. Lay a toilet paper tube stuffed with paper and coated with a bit of oil, as for a bonfire, under the can with an end sticking out to light, then fill the can with charcoal.

Light the starter bit and wait about 20 minutes for the charcoal to be ready (gray on the outside), then use a pair of tongs or pliers to remove the can, then spread the coals out.  Depending on the size of the can and the amount of charcoal needed if you’re having a beach party for a number of boats, you may need several cans.

You can buy a commercially-made version of this, called a “charcoal chimney.”  I first saw it in action when my dad married my stepmother and while it works well, I didn’t see that it did any better than the coffee can!

Okay, for liability purposes I have to put in some sort of a warning about being careful around fire, not lighting a fire near gasoline, making sure it’s not too windy that the fire will spread unintentionally, having a bucket of water handy and so on.  Yes, you’re responsible for your own actions and using fire responsibly!  But you wouldn’t be cruising if you weren’t willing to be responsible for your own actions, right?

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  • Allan Cobb on Facebook
    Posted at 28 June 2012 Reply

    I don’t recommend trying to light a bonfire with a SOLAS flare gun. Just take my word for it!

  • The Boat Galley on Facebook
    Posted at 28 June 2012 Reply

    There’s got to be a good story — or at least a good fire — behind THAT comment!

  • Allan Cobb on Facebook
    Posted at 28 June 2012 Reply

    BOTH flares bounced off the bonfire and one of them almost landed on a tent. The bonfire eventually got going and had 60′ flames. I got to talk to the police about the bonfire and fortunately we had permission from the Fire Marshall. The police then visited the topless Ramen noodle wrestling contest just in time to declare the winner and I had to tell the band to turn down the volume on the music at the request of the police. Yes, it was quite a night…

  • The Boat Galley on Facebook
    Posted at 28 June 2012 Reply

    . . . and you actually remember it??? 🙂

  • Allan Cobb on Facebook
    Posted at 28 June 2012 Reply

    All too vividly!

  • Candy Ann Williams on Facebook
    Posted at 28 June 2012 Reply

    OMG!! I love it!!

  • Molly Stokes
    Posted at 14 February 2013 Reply

    When I was a full time RVer, I saved milk cartons or other waxy paper. Also saved an empty Kleenex box and put used Kleenex back in or waxy paper. Long slow burn.

  • Cindy Smith Balfour
    Posted at 05 December 2013 Reply

    Old corn chips work too.

    • The Boat Galley
      Posted at 05 December 2013 Reply

      Thanks! Wonder about potato chips? They certainly seem to have enough grease . . .

  • Dave Skolnick (S/V Auspicious)
    Posted at 02 July 2015 Reply

    Spaghetti makes a good taper.

  • Jim Fleming
    Posted at 19 August 2016 Reply

    A ball of cotton wool smothered in Vaseline petroleum jelly makes an excellent fire lighter.

  • Beth Browne
    Posted at 29 December 2016 Reply

    Great article, Carolyn! I was wondering if you might do a post on the best stick lighters. We have had a frustrating time with the child-safety feature and they wear out so fast. Some of these options might work, but since we are currently stateside, we have access to plenty of resources. If only we could find the *perfect* one!

    Thanks for an excellent website resource!

    • Carolyn Shearlock
      Posted at 29 December 2016 Reply

      Good question. I’ve tended to buy Bic in the past but right now I’m looking at getting a couple of refillable ones.

  • Eileen Mullins
    Posted at 25 April 2017 Reply

    I have also tried the spaghetti trick. It really does work

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