My apologies, I published this by accident earlier this week without the pictures (Draft and Publish buttons are a little close to each other 🙂 ).
I’m not going to get into “What are these for”, there are far better sources than me to give you a great explanation on what they are. Ferrocerium rods are a method for generating sparks to light equipment (Gas stoves etc) or to light fires. I’ve used a few rods over the years, and always wondered if the more expensive rods were really any better. So I decided to take a handful of rods from the cheap $1.99 Mini Rod and striker on up through the high end $30 Exotac Nanostriker XL. There are dozens of manufacturers and as much as I’d like to test them all it’s just not feasible. But what I have here covers a variety of rods from different price ranges and the results were quite surprising.
Let’s take a look at the rundown. The first is the Mini rod with a small steel striker (The one I tested came from the Boy Scout office, but the same models are sold at Walmart’s and other stores), the cheapest non-bulk striker I was able to find. I’ve seen these around for ages and my boys have had them in some of their kits for years. I’ve always
considered them “backup” or “emergency” strikers because of their small size. (I’ve never even bothered trying to light a fire with them, only gas lamps and stoves).
Next was a bulk rod and piece of hacksaw blade my boys received as gifts for Christmas. These were won on an eBay bid and in bulk were
roughly $2 each. I have no idea of manufacturer or any other details about this rod, so mileage might vary if you order bulk rods. If you are looking at making a lot of ferro rods, this could be a very economical way to get the rods.
Next is the $7.99 magnesium block and Ferro rod from Walmart. I included this one, even though I am not using the magnesium accelerant in any of the
tests, simply because of availability. These are everywhere.
The next two are from the same manufacture; both are LMF (Light My Fire) Fire steels. The first is the red handled “Scout” Model with the original pressed steel striker (Around $12), and the second is the larger “Army” model with the newer “Thumbprint” style striker. (Around $18) The rods are the same material, (Although I believe the army 2.0 is a
slightly harder rod makeup) but the army is much larger than the scout and rated for roughly 3 times the strikes the scout model is rated for.
Last is the most expensive unit in the group (And about the most expensive model available). The Exotac Nanostriker XL. (About $ 32). Pretty fancy little device.
Let’s get started. The one thing I noticed right away is that all rods are not that dissimilar, from the cheapest rod to the most expensive rod, you could easily get enough spark to catch any proper tinder material on fire. So if you have a kit with say cotton balls and Vaseline, dryer lint or pre-made fire tabs etc, you can make fire with any of these in a single stroke.
Now when working in less than ideal conditions, (I was in -6 temps 15 to 20 mile per hour winds with a wind-chill south of -12, middle of winter with 12 inches of snow on the ground during my outdoor test) it’s a whole other ballgame. I took these out and worked with only natural materials like some dry grasses and some bark and other branches and wood from a dead lightning struck tree that was above the snow.
This is where the material makeup of the rods started to show through. With Ferro rods, the magnesium ratio and ratio of other metal content makes them harder or software with some tradeoffs. Too much of one material or too little of another and they are soft and often don’t “Catch” when scraped and act more like a brick of magnesium. The benefit is when they do catch; they burn longer because the chunks of ferro (Iron oxide mixed with magnesium and other metals) are larger when they do catch fire. Also there are different strategies by the manufactures to create better rods that either last longer or burn longer etc. I don’t know and don’t plan to delve into the full composition scheme of each ferro rod as many are closely guarded secrets by their manufactures. (And this average guy will never manufacture them so it’s unnecessary). The basic makeup of a Ferrocerium rod is a mixture of Iron Oxide (Ferro) and Magnesium (and a few other materials).
In the field testing portion, the first thing that you learn running all these different rods is the striker makes or breaks it. Not all strikers are created equal. There is a learning curve to each different model of striker. Some models are far easier to use than others. For example, the Army model LMF fire striker with the thumbprint was my least favorite to use, Due to it’s shape it forces the thumb into a position that to me was slightly uncomfortable and not as mechanically sound as the larger flat striker that came with the scout model. In perfect conditions with good materials, the strikers don’t matter as much, after the first or second batch of sparks, you have it lit. But what I discovered out there in the cold was that if you don’t have ideal materials and it takes you a while working to get sparks you REALLY start to discover what makes or breaks a good striker.
Under ideal conditions all the strikers were effective, but as you start to lose feeling in your hands because of the cold, and your taking 10 strikes at the rod, what made the difference were 2 factors, Size and grip. The smaller strikers like the one on the nanotech, the Mini rod and the army fire steel rapidly became more difficult to use. In these cold temps with no gloves, (or with gloves) you really get to test the emergency ability of these rods.
The Nanostriker has the biggest learning curve of any of the strikers. It has a unique and quite wonderful design that digs up bigger chunks of ferro and throws the biggest, longest lasting sparks of any of the tested devices; however, you have to be VERY precise with your positioning to make it catch or you end up just stripping off part of the rod (Like a magnesium brick) which could be useful but not normally ideal. This is fine in warm dry conditions, but once you fingers start to go numb, it becomes more difficult to use. Once you start to lose a little dexterity to the cold, anything that requires your fingertips goes downhill rapidly.
Next the thumbprint style striker on the LMF army model became difficult. Unlike the mini striker that came with the Mini Rod, it was more difficult to hold it effectively in a deeper grip. Surprisingly, even the tiny flat steel striker that came with the Mini rod model could be held further back in the grip and still be used between the knuckles while my fingers were going more and more numb, but the thicker LMF thumbprint striker design is more awkward to hold in that manner.
The saw blade worked ok, but being a little softer and more flexible it took more dexterity to get it to throw good sparks and keep them aimed at the fire, which also became more difficult as the fingers got colder. The most effective striker while my hands were nearly numb was the larger flat striker from the scout model. Now this is a winter time test only, during the other seasons where cold is not as much of a factor, the smaller strikers and the fingertip strikers will work plenty well. But if you have to use them for extended periods trying to light non ideal materials, they do bother the fingers more.
I ran one more test, I used the 3 best strikers on every rod, and the strikers made a tremendous difference, Using the larger scout striker worked wonderfully on every rod, then the Nanostriker worked great (Actually worked as well if not better on the Walmart magnesium brick and Mini rod than it did on its own XL rod. (I think it still likes a slightly softer rod than the harder rods). In fact, under warmer handed conditions, the best combination I found was the little Mini rod with the XL Striker. It would throw the best combination of hot, long burning sparks and due to its small size, was easy to keep pinpointed into the tinder. I was actually quite amazed at how well this combination worked.
Next I went home and let my hands warm up a bit. I grabbed a ream of paper, and laid a couple of sheets out on the floor. I then took each rod and its own striker and proceeded to get 1 very solid strike per sheet of paper. (If I didn’t get a good strike, I’d toss the sheet and do it again).
The results are pictured below. The Nanostriker was number 1; the big chunks of ferro that lit and hit the paper started the paper on fire EVERY time. The downside is, it took 2 or 3 attempts to get a good solid strike with the unique striker. I have a love hate relationship with the striker now. When it works and you get it down, it’s awesome, but it definitely takes some heavy practice to get it right and even then, you’ll find yourself stripping the rod without a spark many times. The replacement rods are $6 so it’s not a bad platform to work with.
The Mini rod and the mag brick were both ok, but not great, they are softer material than the bulk rod but still didn’t throw as long a burning sparks as the LMF’s, Exotac or the bulk rod. They were cheap, but neither will last very long as the rod is very small.
The bulk rod was the hardest ferro material of the set, which made it take a few more strokes to get sparking at first (Part of this is the softer saw blade also), but once you put a groove in it and sparked down an edge it threw plenty of sparks. The saw blade is still a little soft but when I used the striker from the scout and the Nano, it worked magnificently.
Both the Army and the Scout fire steels worked very well, soft enough to throw good long burning sparks but large enough and hard enough to last through many thousands of strikes. (I have used a scout model for several years and it really does last through 3000 strikes).
Overall, what I discovered is that some are better than others depending on the situation. In warm weather or if you can keep your hands warm, the Exotac had the biggest, longest burning sparks, but the little striker may be just a bit too small for some hands and situations. For the price, I’d like to see a longer handle on the striker, other than that it’s a great design, just make sure you practice, practice, practice with it to get used to the unique shape of the striker.
I was amazed at the results of using the nano striker on the min rod. It was hands down the absolute best combination. If you examine the paper below with the Mini-N (For nano). You can see the results. I was able to duplicate this result consistently. The striker is the key.
The LMF’s were both great, they will last a LONG time, however, I HIGHLY recommend the older style scraper over the thumbprint style on the new models. At $9 to $12 this is the “Sweet Spot” for the higher quality longer lasting rods already in kit form with strikers and lanyards, ready to go. The finger grip on the rod is a bonus over the bulk rods, but it’s very simple to put a handle on a bulk rod. The Army model is long enough to easily tuck into your palm while scraping on the end.
Bulk rods can be great, you can get a lot of them at a cheap price, but you should know where you’re getting them from and if possible order a single to test out and make sure it’s quality. You just never know what you’re going to get. Plus you have to add time, labor and materials in for making your own strikers and making the kits if you wish to make them yourself.
The cheap Mini Rod style is good to toss in a truck or pack or someplace so you have it as a cheap emergency sparker. They won’t last long using them daily, but for emergencies, they are cheap insurance and with the right striker, they work surprisingly well.
In the end, you will need to pick based on what you do, how you plan to spend your time and the environment you’ll be in. However, as I discovered, the rod is the least important part of the kit, with the right striker, any rod will perform very well. Personally, the long lived and right sized rod for me is the LMF Scout Fire Steel. I can get 2 for the price of the Exotac, but the Exotac does throw some pretty amazing long burning sparks as long as you can manipulate the small striker. But above all else, make sure to get a good striker, it will make all the difference!
As in everything, value is what you get out of what you pay for. Most expensive isn’t always best, and least expensive isn’t always worst. Value is at the intersection of quality and price that works for you. You don’t have to spend $30 to get a high quality fire starter, but get some hands on and find what will work best for you. I believe you will be pleasantly surprised at what kind of quality you can get at a value price.
Hope this little comparison helps you along your way. Enjoy your warm fires everyone!