Char is cloth that has been made into charcoal. It is heated at high temperature in the absence of oxygen to drive off flammable solids, leaving a black cloth, which catches and holds a spark. Making char cloth is not difficult. All you need is a can and some cloth. The lid needs to fit tightly. Punch a 1/16 inch hole in the lid. The best char cloth is made of heavy gauge cotton cloth, something like T-shirts, old towels, "terry" cloth and the like. Gene recommends monk’s cloth, and I use canvas duck with good results. Cut the cloth into squares of two inches, or so, and put them in the can loosely, not stacked tightly. Fill the can, but not so much as to compress the squares. Put the lid on and set the can in an open fire. As the can heats, you will see gases or smoke begin to stream from the hole in the lid. When smoke stops coming from the hole, drag the can off and let it cool. If you open it too quickly, the rush of oxygen will cause the cloth to burst into flame, and you'll have to start over. Good char cloth is black, but still has a lot of strength. It should not fall apart from ordinary handling. If it's more like black ash than black cloth, you cooked it too much. If the squares are brown instead of black, or if it is obvious the cloth hasn't been heated evenly, put the top back on and cook it some more.
Other substances than cloth can be used to make char. Punk wood is in the process of rotting. The best I've found is a standing dead tree with white fungus growing all over it, rotten enough to break, very light in weight, but still fairly firm. To make charred wood, the method is identical to that for making charred cloth. When it's right, it is black and as light as a feather. This stuff really catches and holds a spark well, and you cannot easily extinguish it once it catches. Charles Goodnight (Charles Goodnight cowman and Plainsman, Evetts Haley) left the only documented trace of char when he said “if we had none of these cloth materials, we would char a soft cottonwood root, which would catch like punk from which we would light our kindling rag, cedar bark, rotten wood or grass. ?Goodnight recalled that all frontiersmen had more than one way of making fire. The most common method involved the use of punk and steel, but in the prairie country where there was no punk they would burn red corncobs to ashes, put them in a tin plate and make them into a thin mush with water. Into this mush they would put colored calico cloth, which was preferred over white cloth, and thoroughly saturated the material. When dry it could be readily ignited with flint and steel. I have been caught with char that was damp, and would not ignite. It was raining, and I needed fire to make it through the night. I took the damp char and placed a pile of black powder on it. I struck a spark with my flint and steel, and spent the next five minutes putting out the fire in my beard. Once I calmed down, I dampened a cloth patch, poured gun powder into it, and rubbed it into the cloth and then shook off the excess. I struck it with a spark, and it caught, giving me enough time to add it to tinder and get my fire going.
Just a note: there is no documentation for "burning cans" to make char cloth. The skimpy documentation for making charred cloth was rolling it tight on a stick and scorching it on the outside. Also scorching it in a pan. Also the use of char cloth has only limited documentation in the colonies or at homesteads. No one has found any documentation for char cloth being used in the field, at least far from the settlements. There is an on going debate in AMM of whether they wasted any cloth for char cloth in the Rocky Mtns. The majority of AMM do use char cloth, but the majority also believe that it was not used, due to the scarcity of cloth.
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