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Testing 8 methods to make the best cotton ball and vaseline fire starter

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Last year I saw a forum post by Matt Black about a new way to combine vaseline and cotton balls to make an even longer lasting fire starter. His post encouraged me to test my own DIY fire starters and I found out that they all were pretty much garbage and useless. Over a year later I finally am going to take the time to get some decent fire starters for my kits. 

I wanted to test out various methods of creating vaseline cotton balls that I have seen online and find out what would be the best method for my long term strategy.

Here’s the various methods I wanted to test. As you read this, place your bets on what method you think will be the best and then read the results and see if you were right.

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#1- A bare cotton ball straight from the pack.

#2- A bare cotton ball that has been unrolled to create more surface area.

#3- A cotton ball that had petroleum jelly smeared over ¾ of the ball. The thought process here is that the uncovered ¼ would give you a clean area to grab and a place to catch a spark.

#4- A cotton ball that had petroleum jelly smeared over the entire ball.

#5- A cotton ball that had petroleum jelly smeared over the entire ball and then was dipped into a bowl of flour to prevent the outside from getting all vaseliney, making it cleaner to handle.

#6- A cotton ball that had petroleum jelly smeared over the entire ball and then was dunked under water to see the waterproof ability of this fire starting method.

#7- Following the strategy of Matt Black and melting petroleum jelly and then dipping the cotton ball briefly into the jar of melted vaseline.

#8- Same as #7, but instead of a quick dunk this one was completely soaked until it could no longer hold any petroleum jelly.

I went outside with this tray of cotton balls and used a ferro rod to try and light them. It was a fairly windy day so the cotton balls were really put to the test on their ability. I started a timer once the cotton ball caught flame and then stopped it when the flame was entirely extinguished. + or – 5 seconds to each time below due to human ability of having to strike the fire and then move my hand to my watch to start the timer. 

Here are the results:

#1- Bare cotton ball – took 5 strikes of the ferro rod to catch it on fire. It burned for 30 seconds

#2- Unraveled bare cotton ball – took 5 strikes of the ferro rod to catch it on fire. It burned for 30 seconds.

#3- ¾ covered ball – took 3 strikes to light and burned for 3 minutes.

#4- Fully covered ball – Couldn’t get started after 10 strikes. Opened up the ball and exposed the dry cotton inside which then caught a spark. Burned for 3:45 minutes.

#5- Flour covered ball – The flour did help keep from sticking to fingers but after 10 strikes it wouldn’t light. Had to open it up and my fingers got all petroleum jellyish anyways. So flouring your cotton balls didn’t help much after all. The burning flour didn’t smell good, but the cotton ball dipped in flour lasted for 4 minutes.

#6- Wet vaseline ball – Poured an entire 12oz water bottle over it. Was too wet and wouldn’t light even when opened up and held over a flame of a lighter for 10 seconds. This shows that the vaseline doesn’t make these waterproof and you need to keep your tinder dry.

#7- Ball quickly dipped into melted vaseline – By far the best by a long shot! It wouldn’t catch a spark from a ferro rod until it was opened up and exposed to the dry cotton inside but once it caught, it burned incredibly strongly and brightly for 9 minutes! Even if you don’t need the full 9 minutes of burn time, the force and strength of the flame was 4X that of the #4 fully covered ball.

#8- Ball completely soaked into melted vaseline – Vaseline will not light if held to an open flame, making it a very safe fire starting method. #8 was so completely soaked through that it was more petroleum jelly than it was cotton ball. Even being held over the raging flame of cotton ball #7 for 10 seconds, #8 would not light at all. If your cotton balls become too soaked, they will not work.

The clear winner was #7, the ball quickly dipped into melted vaseline. 

To melt the vaseline, I used Matt Black’s double boiler method. I placed a used and cleaned out soup can into a pot of boiling water and scooped a couple spoonfuls of vaseline into it. I placed the quickly dipped cotton balls onto a sheet of wax paper to allow them to dry and harden back to room temperature. Another benefit of this quick dip method is that the cotton balls are actually less sticky than ones where you just smear it on the outside, which is a complaint people have about making these.

 I used about ⅓ of the 3.75oz container of vaseline to run all of the above tests, with a majority of that third going to the melted vaseline balls #7 and #8. Doing this melting method isn’t the most “fuel efficient” and uses more vaseline, but it does produce significantly better results. The jar of vaseline was $1 and the 400 jumbo cotton balls were $2. This is an extremely cheap fire starting method and I highly recommend taking the extra time to melt the vaseline and quickly dip the cotton balls in it.

How do you store your vaseline cotton balls?

Many people recommend using old prescription pill bottles but I like using small snack sized ziploc bags. It allows for a lighter, more compressed storage, and even more waterproof than a pill bottle.

Another idea I had was to unroll a cotton ball into a strip, like #2, and smear the cotton strip with vaseline. I then cut up a clear drinking straw, crimped the end and sealed it with a lick of a lighter. ½ of a vaseline coated cotton ball is able to fit inside of a ⅓ straw. I thought this method would be nice to throw in an EDC pouch or have a very small fire starter anywhere you want. The straw keeps it waterproof and protected.

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Hope this all was helpful to someone.

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  • Comments (32)

    • 3

      Very informative.  Thank you very much for the info.

      • 1

        You are welcome!

      • 3

        Yes! Very good information.

        I see other people have commented on some alternative ideas, I’d be interested in seeing those results as well if you ever test them. I’ve always wondered if you should carry around a container of hand sanitizer. Use it to clean your hands during every day life, and in an emergency maybe you can soak your paper, toilet paper, or dried leaves with it and turn it into a fire starter as well.

    • 4

      We sometimes add sprinkles of Magnesium or powdered aluminium to our vaseline mix.

      • 1

        Darn it! Now I have to go try another method and see if that’s the best solution. LOL.

        Thank you for sharing that tip, I imagine that increases the intensity of the flame?

      • 3

        Yes it burns a fair bit hotter when it works right

    • 4

      I put cotton balls & Vaseline in a large plastic baggie, seal it & squish them all together until the balls get impregnated.  I then put those balls in a separate baggie.  In my kits, I also keep a small jar of Vaseline & lots of extra dry cotton balls.  It is easier to ignite a dry cotton ball 1st.

      My understanding is Vaseline, by itself, is not really flammable, much like the wax of a candle.  In both cases, it is the vapors that are release by the flame which are flammable.  So as with a candle & its wick, a Vaseline ball needs some dry cotton to ignite first, to release the vapors that will burn slowly for several minutes.

      • 2

        You are correct, vaseline will not light on it’s own or if you get the balls too saturated like #8 on my list, than it also will not light. The cotton is burning and just like a candle soaks up the vaseline as it’s wax. Great explanation!

        Are you going to try the #7 melt method now that you see how well it compares to just smearing it?  

      • 3

        I doubt I’ll try the new method.  My kits are all set & I know what I have works well enough for what I’ll need.  But your info is very interesting.  Thanks for the post!

    • 6

      I watch a video where they found that a cotton face wipe might be better/burn longer than a cotton ball. Might want to add that to your test

      • 2

        I had not thought about using something like that as a fire starter. Thank you for the suggestion, I will have to do an update on some other household fire starter options. Compare something like a single sheet of paper to an alcohol wipe. 

    • 4

      Awesome testing scientist Jay! I would have lost money on my bet for the best method, I was voting for 8 due to it’s high concentration of jelly. But I was surprised that 7 won and 8 couldn’t even be lit.

      Love seeing stuff like this on the forum!

    • 3

      Jay, thanks for running this test and sharing the results. I’m definitely going to try Method 7. I’m also going to try it with jute twine.

      • 1

        Jute is a natural material right? What’s it made of?

      • 2

        Yes, it’s a natural vegetable fiber.

      • 3

        Before modern synthetics most of the cordage you would have used would have been made from Jute or hemp, or cotton or linen, or coir and manila .

        Synthetic fibres in use for rope-making include polypropylene, nylon, polyesters (e.g. PET, LCP, Vectran), polyethylene (e.g. Dyneema and Spectra), Aramids (e.g. Twaron, Technora and Kevlar) and acrylics (e.g. Dralon).

      • 2

        I’d think that jute soaked in that melted Vaseline would work then if it’s a natural material like cotton balls are. I’d like to hear from you or Jay Valencia if that’s a good tinder and if it’s able to keep it’s flexibility too.

        That could be an interesting fire starter with it being tied around some grass or something.

      • 2

        Jute and Hemp can be sometime difficult to get lit, In 18th century navies they used to use slow burning rope wicks to fire the old ships cannons, but that was dipped in all sorts of stuff like parafin, tar oil, grease, saltpeter etc etc

        The absolute best TINDER for me has proven to be the collected fluff from the filter of a tumble drier ( I dont know if they are called something different in the US,)    We collect it, compacted it , smear it with vaseline or similar and keep it in little pill bottle or old camera film containers, even sterident tablet tubes.

        If you have a Laundrette near by with driers  sometimes the attendant who maintains the place will have a huge pile of the drier fluff / lint  to dispose of. This stuff is superb fire lighting material.

        Sometimes folks add a bit of Magnesium powder or Aluminium powder or even a crumbled up hexamine tablet.

        Its also common to keep a few Lifeboat / Storm matches plus striker in the same container.

      • 4

        Forgot to mention some folks chop the heads of a box of matches and mix them into their fire lighter material

      • 4

        Do you chaps in the US have Reeds, Reedmace sometimes called Bullrushes,  the seeds of them can be collected and used as fire lighters, and sap from oily trees can be tapped as well.

        Bullrush

        In Australia they have the Eucalyptus trees and they tend to be highly flammable, the oil / sap in Eucalyptics the oil has a fairly low flashpoint  which can be used to aid fire lighting, I dont know if the US has any similar type of tree.   

        If you have the Silver Birch in the US its bark makes great tinder as well.

        silverbirch1_orig

      • 4

        To Robert Larson: I’d like to do another followup post testing some common items around the house as tinder. Probably won’t be until next year after the holidays though. Thanks for your suggestions.

        To Bill Masen: We do have reeds and cat tails around here and have heard that the fluff in there is good tinder. Also birch bark. I’d like to gather both of those and also some fat wood from a pine tree and compare those to other household sources like a face wipe like LBV asked for. I’ll also try some dryer lint. In Matt Black’s original post last year that inspired this testing, he used dryer lint. I was going to do that because it’s free and otherwise would just be thrown away, but I heard that the flammability is dependent on what type of clothing you are drying. If you mostly own synthetic clothes, that will not burn as well than if you mostly had cotton and clothing. Even if you have 60% synthetic and 40% cotton, that’s 60% of fluff that won’t burn as well and will just sort of melt.

        You all are too kind and I am glad that you enjoyed this testing by asking for more! 

      • 3

        Thats why hitting the local Laundrette for drier lint is always a good option, providing of course the laundrette is no where near an army camp cos the grunts will inevitably beaten you to it.

        I also use Pottasium Permanganate wrapped in kitchen role, I add a few drops of vehicle antifreeze from my van kit and wait, it usually ignites within a minute or so.

        I like to add assorted stuff to my fire starters,  folks need to grasp the THREE primary componants

        1 IGNITOR – ACCELERENT

        2 WICK

        and

        3 FUEL

        So 1 can be matches, lighter, chemical reaction,  sparks etc  which in turn can ignite the HOT burning accelerant ( match heads, aluminium powder, magnesium filings, light oil etc. the accellerant burns hot but briefly to drive up the heat to a point it ignites 3 the fuel.

        2 is the lint / cotton/ hemp etc that is flammable itself but usually the carrier (WICK) for 3

        3 being petrolium jelly, parafin, hexamine  or distilates, wood sap, tar etc

      • 4

        1, 000, 000 match heads

        https://youtu.be/ODym_QYP9E8

      • 1

        Now that’s a fire starter! Gotta get me one of those.

      • 4

        I’ll second this. We’ve made fire starter briquettes by putting drier lint in the cells of egg cartons, then pouring melted paraffin over them. They work very well.

      • 1

        That is one of the fire starters I have made in the past, minus the paraffin. Here’s my comment about it.

      • 3

        Gotcha. My experience was that although they worked well for me, they’re heavier and bulkier than a little snack baggie full of cotton balls, which work at least well. Cotton balls win.  

    • 3

      I’d like to see how this compares to a cotton ball soaked in lighter fluid. My hypothesis is that the lighter fluid would burn faster and more violently than the petroleum jelly

      • 1

        I’ll add that to my list of ones to test in my next round of testing. Thanks for the recommendation Frank.

      • 2

        Yes is does indeed burn faster and hotter, but its harder to safely store in bug Out Bags, it also evapourates far to fast. 

        So if you are for example trying to light a camp fire in an emergency and the wood is slightly damp very often the fast burning lighter fuel is exhausted before the wood dries enough to fully ignite and sustain the fire. 

        Also lighter petrol when its evapourating can become explosive making it risky to use .

    • 2

      thanks so much for sharing this.  I found it extremely helpful.  I am curious.. the cotton you put into the straw, did you cut a strip and dip it in melted vaseline, cool then put in straw and seal?

      • 1

        I’m happy to hear you found this helpful. For the cotton in the straw I unrolled a cotton ball (like I did in test #2) and then cut that into half. I then smeared vaseline on the outside of the cotton strip. Then you take a toothpick or tine of a fork and push it into the straw. 

        The cotton strips are so thin that if I dipped that into the melted vaseline it would absorb too much and be too saturated like test #8 was and not work, that’s why I just smeared vaseline on that one.

        The straw method is really cool being self contained, waterproof, and super small.