In the local grocery store, I happened to mention that I was researching an article about making torches out of natural materials. This comment definitely peaked the curiosity of the other customers around me- a group of mothers with young “Minecraft Enthusiasts” at home. Needless to say, they were keenly interested to hear of a craft project that might be interesting and engaging enough to inspire their young people to go outdoors with them.
Torches Are Dangerous
Before running over to the nearest lounging teenager and saying, “Let’s go outside and light a bunch of handmade torches on fire,” I would humbly recommend:
- reading our Timeless Journey® Torch Safety Guidelines
- watching our torch burning videos so you have an idea of what to expect
Clearly, you should use your own discretion and decide whether you have the skills and knowledge necessary to accomplish this project safely or whether it would be better to sign up for one of our bushcraft course and to do these activities under the supervision of an experienced bushcraft instructor.
When you are trying these ideas at home, we can’t see what you are making, how you are doing it or stop you when you’re doing something incorrectly. Hence, we have to decline all responsibility for any damages or personal injuries that you or someone else might sustain by undertaking this project on your own.
Please make your own decisions carefully, knowing that you will need to take full responsibility for your actions.
Step One: Setting the Scene
If you are the parent of a “Minecraft Enthusiast” and you have never dared to venture into the world of Minecraft- this is your chance to spend some quality time with your teenager on the sofa learning about Minecraft.
What does the following equation mean anyway?
Attempt to get a deeper understanding of why torches are important (yes, in the game) and how they can be used to gain power and accomplish projects. Your interest now, could pay off big time when it comes to going outside in the snow.
Does the young person think that the torches in the game looks realistic? Do they understand what coal and charcoal are in reality? How do you make charcoal and where do you get coal in reality? Ask practical questions like how do you get the charcoal to stay on the stick while it’s burning? Why doesn’t the stick light on fire? What are red-stones and where do they come from?
How did people make torches before batteries? When would you need a torch and when would a lamp be more practical? How long does your torch burn?
Be open and listen to all their crazy theories about torches.
Try not to pass judgement or condemn their ideas by saying that they won’t work- just get an understanding of their perspective on this survival skill. If you are scared by the answers you’re hearing, it’s not the end of the world. You could sign them up for a survival course this summer (but keep that idea to yourself for the moment because our summer courses aren’t being published until January).
Step Two: Getting Equipped
Before proposing the project, you may also want to stock your home with a few basic supplies on hand so that you have everything ready to go when the moment is right to let the idea out of the bag. You will likely need:
- wax paper
- a baking sheet
- at least one disposable aluminium cake pan (dollar store)
- metal spoons
- a frying pan*
- recycled paper towel (for spills)
- garden pruning sheers
- Lard or Tallow (you can make your own or purchase a commercial product like Tenderflake)
- fire-extinguishing gear (have a strategy for grease fires too)
- personal protection like leather gloves and glasses
*If you spill animal fat on a cast iron frying pan, you can rub it into the cast iron and it is good for it. If you use a frying pan made from a regular ceramic or metal alloy, you will have to scrub the fat off.
Paper towel works well for wiping up fat. I store mine in the fridge in a ziplock bag and use them as a fire-starter. Don’t throw them away- they can spontaneously combust in your garbage can.
Dumping melted liquid fat down the sink is also a very bad idea, as fat can clog the drain when it solidifies.
Make sure that everyone working on the project knows how to dispose of these products properly.
Step Three: Launching The Idea
If you experience resistance to torch-making as a concept, you could try the following:
- show them a cool torch picture
- offer to help them find and assemble the tools necessary for the job
- let them do part of the project indoors in the warm kitchen or garage
- bake cookies and provide hot chocolate with marshmallows
- make a pie with the left-over lard
- let them have a friend over when you light the torches on fire in the fire-pit
Step Four: Go Foraging For Materials- Together
When was the last time, you went for a walk together as a family. Well, now you have mission- a purpose for an outing. Depending on how many torches you intend to build, you may need all of these materials, or just a few. The hunting and scavenging of resources for the project is part of the fun but please respect the Timeless Journey@ Foraging Safety Guidelines.
You will need to look for:
- Dried mullein (dead-looking, not green) with the stem attached
- Brown cattails with their stem attached
- Fluffy cattail heads (leave the stem and take the heads)
- A few (2-4) large pine cones with a tall torch-like shape
- A big** lump of hard sap (fist-sized)*
- Many small bits of hard or soft pine pitch (hand-full)*
- A few (2-3) thumb-thick straight pieces of green wood or fresh branches cut from a tree (no leaves or needles!)
- A few (6-8) pencil-thick short pieces of green wood to hold open the torch-holder
*use butter or lard and detergent to get sap or pitch off your hands and clothing.
**Getting a tree to give you the large lump of sap that you need for your pine pitch torch project is going to be a major challenge. Be prepared that it will be as hard as rock. You might need to get creative and try some equipment like a rock or a wedge to chip it off the tree. Parental supervision is recommended. Please do not damage the tree or yourself removing the sap.
Bring your treasures home and let them dry for a few days in the garage…build the anticipation.
Step Four: “Let’s Make Some Torches”
Melt your rendered animal fat or lard in the disposable aluminium cake tin, sitting in a a hot water bath. The water should be warm enough to melt the fat- but not boiling.
If the fat gets too hot, it can light on fire so don’t let it smoke or get too hot.
If you are using “Tenderflake” lard, you may want to limit the amount of lard and let the young people have half of it for making torches and keep half in solid form in the fridge for baking a pie crust. More lard produces more flames, so give them only what you think they can handle.
As the lard melts, you need to plan ahead about how you will dry your dripping fat-laden torch heads.
On a baking sheet, lined with wax paper? Worked for us. We also tried hanging them- but it was horrifically messy.
How to Make A Torch-Holder…
Pine cones dipped in lard, pine cones stuffed with pitch, pure pine pitch, and lard-soaked fluffy mature cattails are a little bit different because you need to build a non-combustible torch-holder that’s sufficiently strong to hold their weight. Their stems are not suitable for holding them up as they burn.
You can make a torch-holder this out of a freshly cut branch or stick- like a willow or aspen. One end of the stick has to be cut into 4-quarters and held open using two perpendicular pencil-thin wedge-sticks.
Splitting the end of the stick into four pieces is a bit of a challenge. You might ruin a few sticks before you can actually produce an adequate torch holder.
We were able to accomplish the two perpendicular incisions with a pair of garden-style pruning sheers. Making this type of cut safely with a fixed blade knife requires an advanced technique that we teach in our courses. We have not illustrated it here because we feel that it should not be attempted by a beginner.
Don’t burn a fluffy, mature cattail head soaked in animal fat on their natural stem.
In our experience, the cattail fluff soaks up way too much fat and gets really, really heavy. The burning reaches the stem before the fat in the cattail is fully consumed and the flaming bundle always seems to topple over. It can burn a long time on the ground before it is finally extinguish- making it a serious fire risk.
Video 1: The fluffy cattail topples over and burns in the bucket for about 15 minutes
This is why I recommend using a torch-holder for cattails soaked in animal fat.
Make sure that any object that you plan to burn is firmly lodged in the torch-holder. If in doubt, replace or tie down the floppy bit using wire.
Step Five: Test Your Handmade Torches Under Ideal Conditions (Only)
Commercial tiki torches can fall over creating domestic and wildfires quite easily- that’s why they are banned during fire season in many regions in Canada. Torches made from natural materials would be no different- they definitely require constant vigilance because they are unpredictable. A gust of wind can send the flames or burning debris flying in all directions.
Burn one torch at a time and watch it like a hawk- don’t set up a garden party with torches made from natural materials. Go to the bathroom before supervising a torch-lighting event because some of them last an hour.
Don’t let your enthusiasm for burning things cloud your vision- focus on safety, protect yourself and your family, the property where you’re lighting your torches and the environment.
If you would like to watch a time-lapse video of what the torches looked like during our experiments, you can check out the videos below. They will give you a good idea of what to expect. Obviously, you need to take into account that the materials and conditions you are facing might be a bit different.
Video 1: A brown cattail head dipped in melted lard, burning on it’s original stem
Notice that I light the torch at the top of the cattail because the material wicks wax well- almost like a candle.
Video 2: A mullein flower head dipped in melted lard, burning on it’s original stem
Romans used to make torches using mullein flower heads dipped in tallow. I can understand why- the steady slow burn of mullein seems safer than the fiery and unpredictable pine cone- burn.
Video 3: A pine cone dipped in rendered beef tallow, burning on an aspen torch-holder
This torch is remarkable once it gets going but difficult to get started and very short-lived.
Video 4: Shows a pine cone dipped in rendered beef tallow, burning on an aspen torch-holder
I call this the red-stone torch because it had a beautiful light and a classic torch shape to the flame. In total, it lasted over 45 minutes and remained well-behaved. I suspect that I was lucky and other people might have a different experience with exploding sap- so be careful about drawing conclusions too quickly.
The fluffy cattail in the trembling aspen torch-holder stayed burning for 1 hour and 15 minutes. An amazing performance that rivals a commercial tiki torch.
We had a lot of good fun outdoors making the torches and torch-videos. Torch-making is a great way to get people interested in going outdoors in the cold, dark, winter months in Canada. Stay safe!
Our Summer 2019 courses for young people, adults and families will be posted early in the New Year- check us out then!