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Getting a Repro Flintlock Tinder Lighter to Work
All the steps I did to turn my Tinder Lighter into a well functioning device.

By John Fuhring

What, no video???  No, you are going to have to read and think.,
but there is detail here that will teach you more than any video can.
I hope you find this essay interesting and enjoyable.

This essay is presented to you free of charge and without any annoying commercials.  

It seems that these flint lighters were pretty common in the 18th Century.
Many originals are still around and this one of mine is a
"spitting image" of an original made by Henry Nock back then.
The more I experiment with this little thing, the more
I understand why they were so popular in those
households wealthy enough to afford them.

    I've always been interested in obsolete and otherwise "trailing edge" technologies.  For a while now I've wondered how our 18th Century ancestors made fire since now and again the home fire place would go out and would need to be relit.  Before the early 1900s matches were quite dangerous and expensive, but gentlemen smokers of the mid to late 1800s would buy small quantities them from "match girls" for lighting their cigars.  Note: the early matches contained white phosphorus and were poisonous causing terrible bone disease to those who trafficked in them or otherwise carried them and used them frequently.  The match girls on street corners were especially at risk, but the early matches were convenient in a world that consumed prodigious amounts of tobacco.

     Before chemical matches, people would have to make fire from flint and steel, leave a candle burning all the time or hope the embers won't go out when the fireplace wasn't burning.  Flint and steel actually works very well and one can have a rather nice fire going rather quickly, however the process usually creates a large ball of burning tinder that is unwieldy and dangerous if one simply wants to light a candle or a tobacco pipe or a cigar.  A much nicer method for making a small fire is to adapt the traditional hand held flint and steel to a flintlock mechanism.  By simply pulling a trigger, one can create a glowing bed of "char cloth" and then use a small ball of sulfur on the end of a wooden stick (called a "spunk") to get a flame.  The sulfur spunk is lit by simply touching it to the glowing char cloth.  Of course, a small amount of tinder can be placed on top of the glowing char cloth and blown into a flame too if you don't have or want to use sulfur spunks.

      The following story is how I took a non-working, but an exact copy of a Henry Nock 18th Century flintlock lighter and made it into a device that is a highly convenient flint and steel lighter that actually works.  I was able to make the lighter work as well as it looked good with a little gunsmithing and micro-blacksmithing that I absolutely love doing anyway.  It certainly helps that I have all the simple tools and supplies for doing hardening and flintlock gunsmithing..  

Making my lighter work
     When the little lighter arrived a couple of days ago I was pleased with its look and the fact that everything in the lock seemed to work except the case hardening of the frizzen was by the "color case hardening" method which means that the frizzen was not at all hard and the hard layer was too thin to produce sparks.  This was nothing to me because I've hardened frizzens so many times and am pretty good at it.  I removed the screw that held the frizzen and the screw that held the frizzen springs to the top of the pan cover.  I took the part and I hardened the daylights out of it with a large propane torch and Brunell's hardener powder.  This time I put a pile of hardener on top of the frizzen's striking surface and then heated the frizzen to a bright red temperature and kept the heat on until all the hardening compound was melted and most of it had evaporated.  I then added some more compound and heated it again.  When this second application was mostly gone, I used a coarse steel brush to get rid of the remaining compound then heated the frizzen to red heat.  When the frizzen was bright red, I plunged it into cold water and swished it around giving me a very black and very hard frizzen that polished up nicely with a wire brush.  

     After I had hardened the frizzen as described, the lighter sparked but it needed some more modification before I got good sparks.  I noticed that the frizzen didn't open very smoothly and had a kind of scraping feel to it.  I took a close look at the undersides of the springs and noticed that they were pretty rough so I polished them smooth, put them back in and noticed a big improvement and especially after I put a tiny drop of oil on each of the friction surfaces.  There was still one thing more that needed done to get good sparks.

Frizzen springs.
Polishing the undersides made opening and closing the pan much smoother.

     After the frizzen was operating properly and the pan was opening all the way, I tackled the problem with the front edge of the flint not going down low enough.  In order for a flintlock to throw good sparks and for those sparks to make it down to the pan properly, the edge of the flint must be able to scrape steel off the heel of the frizzen where the hottest and most abundant sparks come from.  To do this, the flint must end up slightly below the bottom of the pan when the cock is all the way down and this wasn't doing it.  To get the fiint down where it should be and allow it to scrape off the hottest sparks, I filed metal off the little projection that stops the cock's travel.  The flint was made to stick out of the cock's jaws far enough (with this lock, the pan can't be closed on half cock), I got the flint's edge below the bottom of the frizzen's heel.

To get good, hot sparks, the edge of the flint must be below the heel of the frizzen.
notice the enlarged screwdriver slot.

The bottom of the little projection was filed down a little to allow the edge of the flint to be lower.
     As mentioned, the flint must stick out a long way and that prevents the pan from closing on half-cock.  This is a design flaw caused by the frizzen's angle being raked back too far and would be a real problem in a firearm.  In this use, as a fire starter, I am amazed they even bothered to make a half cock sear in the bottom of the cock because half cock serves no function at all and it is never used.  Since there is really no way to change the rake angle and since it really doesn't matter anyway, I don't worry about it.

     After hardening the frizzen's face and making the friction surface of the pan springs smooth and adjusting the bottom travel of the cock, I enlarged the screwdriver slot in the cock's jaw screw so I could use a ordinary screwdriver without an extra narrow blade and then I hardened the top of the screw so using a screwdriver wouldn't "bung" up the top of the screw.  I then put in a flint, adjusted the length so the edge rested below the heel of the frizzen, cocked the lock and pulled the trigger.  I was rewarded with a fine shower of sparks.

     Today I made up a bunch of char cloth by putting cotton rags in an Altoids steel box and heating it on my stove until all the flaming stopped..  I filled the pan about half way up with char cloth, cocked the lighter, closed the lid and pulled the trigger.  The shower of sparks immediately set the char cloth glowing in several spots and the whole process worked much, much better and quicker than any flint and steel fire making I've ever done before.   To extinguish the char cloth and save it for next time, I simply closed the pan and when I checked it later, the smoldering char cloth had indeed gone out.

     My next step is to make up sulfur "spunk" matches or perhaps simply use safety kitchen matches and pretend they are sulfur spunks, ha, ha.  Of course, a small bit of tinder can be placed on top and blown into a flame as I mentioned at the beginning.

     Do I like my little lighter?  Yes, I like it as a historical decoration and conversation piece on the mantle of my fireplace and I like the fact that it really works and will give a person some idea of what it was like in the 18th Century when life was "nasty, brutal and short," but at least they had fire.  

I rounded off the sharp wooden edges and "antiqued" the wood a bit and now my lighter even
more closely resembles an original 18th Century lighter and works as well as they did.
By the way, I've noticed that nearly all original lighters had the sides of the lock engraved
with fancy designs and sometimes with the makers name.  My lighter is plain.



     If you enjoyed this story, you might also be interested in the following articles and stories.


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