I don't smoke. That said, fire is one of the most basic needs we have after food, water, and shelter.
Both for camping and for emergencies, it's useful to have some way of lighting a fire easily. Lighters suit that need quite well. I'm not a big fan of the Bic lighters - cheap, disposable, and easily broken. I keep one in my emergency kit, because as much as I hate to admit it, they're dependable, and the fuel doesn't evaporate as is the case with a petrol lighter (such as a Zippo).
I also have always liked lighters; no real reason other than I like the idea of being able to light a fire should I need it without much trouble. This page will describe a few of the various fire/heat sources I've tried, and what I think of them.
Founded in 1907, IMCO has probably been making lighters longer than anybody else at this point; Ronson is technically older, but it was bought out by Zippo a couple of years back, so Ronson is more of a brand than a company now.
IMCO’s lighters were an inspiration for the Zippo, in fact. The current IMCO models were developed in 1936, and have had a couple of improvements since then. Zippo was started in 1932, and the design hasn’t changed much since then.
IMCO’s lighters are made of thin stamped nickel-plated steel. They are windproof fuel & wick lighters, just like a Zippo.
IMCO Lighters are mechanically much more complicated than a Zippo: With a Zippo, you have the cam for the lid, the flint wheel, and the screw/spring for the flint. IMCO’s have at least double the number of parts, both moving and stationary. Yet in spite of the increased complexity, and cheap stamped metal construction, they are extremely reliable, and have a smooth mechanical action.
With an IMCO lighter, you can lift one of the panels to reveal its mechanism (both the lid hinge and the flint springs). Replacing the flint does not require tools - just lift the lid, pull back on the lever, and swap the flint. The fuel tank and wick are essentially a steel candle that can be pulled out of the lighter body. This lets you light the lighter, and then pull out the fuel tank/wick and use it like you would a candle - either for light, or to light fires. The “Super Triplex” model - the flagship in the line - has a moving wind screen that allows more or less air into the combustion chamber - meaning you can change the height of the flame. The lid has a cap (much like a candle snuffer) that closes tightly over the wick, which reduces the rate of fuel evaporation. Your finger never needs to touch the (possibly dirty) flint wheel.
I really like the IMCO lighters - they have a satisfying and refined ‘snap’ when they are lit and extinguished - both audible and tactile. They are durable and are extremely reliable. That said, they also have a number of qualities that you would expect from something made of stamped metal: tolerances are looser. Some of the bends in the metal aren’t perfect. The looser tolerances and thin metal give it a ‘tin rattle’ like tin toys of yesteryear. There are a few sharp corners that aren’t entirely friendly to the hand. That said, they feel good in the hand overall, and only cause irritation if you light and extinguish the lighter repeatedly for an extended period of time.
The Super Triplex model is the most traditional IMCO lighter; the bullet-shaped tank/wick shows its heritage in the trenches of World War I. The Super holds the most fuel of the IMCO lighters, and has an adjustable windscreen/flame height.
A variant of the Super, the "Jr." has the adjustable Windscreen and a small hinged panel removed.
The Streamline model is shorter and thinner than the Super Triplex lighters. The tank holds less fuel as a result. The streamline does not have a moveable windscreen, unlike the Super - additionally, the fuel tank/wick (ie. the 'metal candle’) is considerably more difficult to remove than on the Super.
Zippo, of Bradford Pennsylvania, makes the most iconic lighter of all time.
Zippo was founded in Bradford, Pennsylvania in 1932 when George G. Blaisdell created an attractive lighter that was easy to use. He obtained the rights for an Austrian windproof lighter with a removable top (I'm betting IMCO's). He made a rectangular case, attached the lid to the base with a welded hinge, and surrounded the wick with a metal chimney. Blaisdell like the sound of a different product that had just been introduced: the zipper. His new lighter was named "Zippo", and was backed with a Lifetime Guarantee: It works or we fix it free.
Virtually unchanged since 1932, the Zippo is an American icon. Zippo’s feel very nice in the hand - there are no sharp corners or edges; even the hinge is smooth and rounded. Flip up the lid, and you get the classic Zippo Click, and strike the flame with the flint wheel. Zippos are simple to light, and don't require much force to strike. Close the lid, and the flame is extinguished with a distinctive snap.
With the decline in the number of smokers, Zippo has started to market new products that aren't tobacco related. They have a line of watches, pens, and outdoor equipment, as well as new utility lighters for candles, grills, and the great outdoors.
The only real downside I’ve ever seen in a Zippo is the fuel evaporates - I’ve typically gone about two weeks before the fuel evaporates, after which the lighter must be refueled. Zippo recently released a line of butane lighters - Zippo Blu. The Blu line isn’t the same shape/size as a Windproof Zippo. It has a more tapered design, and is about 1/2 inch taller. The Blu also is a “torch” type lighter - instead of a soft flame like you get from a regular Zippo or a Bic lighter, there’s a 3/16 inch diameter tapered blue jet flame.
I figured I’d get a Blu to see how well it worked; butane lighters don’t suffer from fuel evaporation the way a lighter-fluid lighter works, so I can fill it & forget about it until I need it - checking every six months or so.
The Blu doesn’t get the best ratings on Amazon - problems that, after investigation, appear to be from filling with low-grade butane, and personal preferences. Among the personal preferences, I’ve seen: They don’t like the flint wheel (should be piezo), ‘plastic’ is used, the click isn’t quite right, etc
My own conclusions (and observations based on watching YouTube video reviews with the complaints) is that most of the complaints come down to RTFM.
- Like all fuels, there are quality grades in Butane. Low grade butane clogs things that burn it - I know cheap butane clogged my butane soldering iron/torch. The use of high-grade butane makes a big difference in any butane fueled device.
- Purging air from the lighter is important - lighter makers take time to stress the important of purging air from the lighter.
- With the Zippo Blu, you have to push down on the flint wheel (which is like a button that turns on the Butane) for about a second before striking the wheel. If you don’t start the fuel flow first, you’re striking the wheel, but there’s no fuel to burn. Go figure.
- The Butane button (below the striker) is not plastic, contrary to the complaints I’ve seen. It’s metal, and black anodized. I’ve been fooled into thinking black anodized metal is plastic more than a few times with my R/C Helicopters, so I’m also not surprised that some are mistaking the button for plastic.
- Don’t keep the lighter burning for more than 10 seconds. This makes sense given the considerably hotter blue torch flame. Burnt fingers hurt.
As far as preferring a piezoelectric ignition: I like flint better myself. Even if you're out of fuel, you can throw sparks
I’ve not had a single problem lighting my Blu; it lights reliably and I really don’t have any issues with mine, save for one: the lid cam. The Blu (and the emergency firestarter) lid cam is, in a word, tiny. It’s probably half the size of the lid cam on a normal Zippo. This has a couple of consequences:
- Due to its smaller length, it doesn’t have as much leverage against the lid. This means that the lid doesn’t close as tightly as a regular Zippo. It requires less force to open a Blu than a normal Zippo, and the lid doesn’t close tightly (resulting in a ~0.1 mm ‘gap’ that many complain about).
- The sound is different than a traditional zippo; the classic ‘click’ is changed. It’s really a testament to how well Zippo makes their lighters when you can tell a real Zippo from an imitation by the sound of the click. It sounds fine when opening the lighter. However it doesn’t have the same satisfying snap when closed; it has a sort of hollow ring to it.
Overall, I like my Zippo Blu, and I’d get another, should the need arise.
The traditional Zippo is the windproof lighter. Virtually unchanged since 1932, it's a true American icon, seen in film and history since its first manufacture. The Zippo Click of the lid is so distinctive that it is often used to detect counterfeit Zippo lighters.
The windproof lighter is smooth and easy on the hand, with no sharp edges to catch on anything when closed. The Zippo is made of formed brass that is then finished in any of a number of methods - chrome plating, powder coats, and graphics.
They are very solid - I’ve heard the phrase “bombproof” to describe a Zippo, and that sounds accurate. They are more durable and dependable than any other lighter I’ve seen. I’ve had a Zippo since shortly after I graduated from high school, and have used it every time I’ve gone camping since then - as well as any other time I needed a flame.
The emergency firestarter's case is the same size/shape as a Zippo Blu, but the case isn’t quite the same; the blu has a curvy lid/base joint, while the firestarter has a flat lid. Inside the case, there are four wax-coated rayon sticks (they call them Tinder Sticks) where the lighter chimney would be, and a Zippo striker wheel that strikes to the side. So you pull out a tinder stick, unfold it, and apply sparks from the striker wheel. Bam. Fire. The tinder sticks burn for about 2 minutes, which is good enough to start a fire (unless you have soaking wet wood, in which case, no starter will help you). The lid closes down over a rubber gasket, which seals everything in water tight.
It’s pretty slick, and will work reliably 100 years from now. There's no fuel to evaporate, and nothing to go bad over time. Like all Zippos, the flint is replaceable and useful in its own right.
Zippo makes a beautiful catalyitic hand warmer. It stays warm and burns for over 12 hours using less than a half ounce of fuel, with almost no odor. I've ran the numbers and find that it will be cheaper to use than disposable hand warmers, as well as the charcoal-burning hand warmers (which also have the disadvantage of smelling like burning charcoal). I purchased two of these - one is in my car, the other is in my emergency kit.
Beverage Can Stove
I saw a few articles on how to make these, and decided to make one myself. A surprisingly effective cooking stove can be made with a couple of aluminum beverage cans and a bit of patience. I spent a few hours one rainy day making mine. They are very lightweight, easy to make, and can boil a liter of water in about 10 minutes - and keep it boiling for another ten minutes. Beverage can stoves use alcohol for fuel - ideally reasonably pure methanol or ethanol (or a mix of both). A bottle of Heet (a common gasoline antifreeze additive) is reasonably pure methanol, and costs about a buck fifty for 5-6 uses. It's definitely good to know how to make one of these for camping or emergencies.