Archive for the ‘Scouting’ Category

Posted by Tim Ireland at 27 February 2019

Category: Scouting

I’ve been doing a lot of work on teaching fire over the last few years, and over time I’ve developed what I think is a vast improvement on current homemade firelighting technology.

I’m sure you’ve seen cotton balls and make-up remover pads dipped in wax before, maybe even witnessed a few egg cartons being subjected to a hot pour, but once you learn this wax firelighter recipe using cotton balls, wood chips and silicone moulds you will never go back.

I have a lot more to share and have started a Patreon account to fund further episodes, but thought I would kick off by putting this previously-secret recipe in as many hands as possible. It’s not only useful for camping enthusiasts and survivalists; these firelighters are great for starting barbecues and fireplaces at home, and making them is a fun and educational activity for young people (just make sure you invest in some drop sheets and aprons first).

Everything you need is in the video, but I’ve published the full transcript below for reference.

Have fun.. and please support my Patreon!


Hello. My name is Tim Ireland. I’m a Scout leader and keeper of the secrets of fire. What you are about to see is a shortcut developed by an expert; it is no substitute for expertise. Always be cautious with fire.

This a wax-based firelighter I developed with a soft core of cotton wool and wood chips. It’s cheap and easy to make, it’s stable, clean and water-resistant, and you can light it with a spark.

Today I’m going to show you how to make hundreds of these from a single candle and a few household materials.

First, put some tough cardboard down for spills.

For this batch we’ll be using a single 500g paraffin wax candle, and some waste from the previous batch.

You’ll also need some wood shavings from the pets section, and some balls of cotton wool in either large or small sizes.

For small lighters use small cotton balls and silicone ice cube or confectionary trays with small shapes. Stars are fun, hearts are great, but square shapes are easier to pack in a tin and I have multiple trays, which makes the process faster.

For large lighters use large cotton balls and silicone ice cube or confectionary trays with large shapes. These would let you make hearts, spooky ghost faces, magical unicorns, or a whole bunch of upvotes.

Throw a handful of wood shavings into about half a bag of cotton balls, and shake the whole business until you have a bunch of furry little Ferrero Rochers.

Now you’ll need two hotplates, and two stainless-steel saucepans, ideally with metal handles.

Finally, you will need a working tray, a dipping cup (mine is aluminium) a thick handled spoon, a thin handled spoon and a stainless steel teapot with integrated filter.

Medium for melting, low for cooling, cup for dipping, teapot for filtering, thick-handled metal spoon for when you want to bring the temperature of your wax down by stirring it. Thin spoon for when you don’t.

If you must use gas hobs, you will need a heat-diffusing ‘simmer ring’, and they look like this.

Now – let’s melt some wax.

My hobs go up to 6, ‘low’ is set to a little under 1 and ‘medium’ goes no higher than 3.

In goes the candle… and the waste from the last batch.

We do not hurry melting the wax. Slowly and gently does it. If vapour is coming off your pot, you are coming in too hot. Pull up.

Pour the melted wax into the metal teapot. Then gently strain it into the low-heat saucepan, before leaving it to cool for a bit.

When ready, pour your near-viscous wax into the dipping cup.

Then, stir occasionally until you hit the sweet spot, when wax sticks to your spoon. Results vary with perfume and pigments, but generally viscosity kicks in just under 60 degrees Celsius, by which time you will see a skin on top of the wax.

Now you dip each cotton ball in turn – 3 times each, then press it into the silicone mould and pinch or wipe the top gently; the wax will start to solidify in your fingers as you finish the tops off, so everything important happens in this moment.

Note I’m using gloves. You can use ordinary washing up gloves if you like. The wax isn’t all that hot, but if you’re going to be doing this hundreds of times you will want to avoid nerve damage to your digits, because like you, they need to feel things.

I’m going to do a short set of ‘waterproof’ lighters here. It uses mostly the same method, but while the wax is still malleable, you fold the waste into the middle from the edge and press and wipe to finish the top and edges.

This is more time-consuming and the resulting lighters are harder to crack open in their finished state, but they are waterproof when done and it’s faster than double-dipping them, which is the alternative path to waterproofing.

Me, I prefer an unfinished and merely water-resistant top because the lighters are easier to break open and start that way.

In a moment we’re going to zoom in and get in a little closer to the action to show how easy it is. The wax forms a seal around the cotton before you’re in for the second dip, meaning the cotton remains soft and wispy on the inside, even while you press it into the mould, so there’s no need to be gentle. Dip-dip-dip shove, pinch, Dip-dip-dip shove, pinch. It’s quite relaxing when you get into a rhythm.

Wait for each tray to cool and then turn over and push them out like you would ice cubes.
Then trim with scissors.

Pour any off-cuts into your waste pile for the next batch.

From that 500 gram candle and some waste, I’ve produced 108 firelighters weighing a total of 470 grams… and some waste.

That’s enough to fill my tobacco-sized tin a dozen times over, all from one candle.

To use the lighters, you just break open the top, pull some of the cotton out and throw a spark into the wispy threads. The wood shavings help to take that reaction to the wax, creating a chain reaction specifically designed to make the pyrolysis process as efficient as possible: from here the cotton heart turns into a wick, drawing the fuel into the reaction, until every last scrap is gone.

Watch the wax around the firelighter as it burns. It doesn’t melt or drip. With the exception of a few minerals and some stray carbon in the smoke, all of the solid matter in the lighter is transformed by heat into gas, generating more heat and continually feeding the reaction until all you are left with is a ball of what used to be cotton that is now an aerated fluff of coal that’s eager to oxidise and still giving off heat.

Heat, of course, is the heart and start of your fire. Flames are just showing off.

So, that’s my firelighter recipe. It’s one of my secrets, but teaching you about fire and its secrets is going to take a little extra effort.

I’ve finally started a Patreon account, and my first intended project is a series of videos teaching the secrets of fire, starting with pyrolysis and the advantage of knowing what’s happening at a molecular level, and what’s powering that at an atomic level.

It sounds complicated, but I can assure it is far easier than diving right in and rubbing two sticks together… and you can help to bring these lessons to life.

Mastery of fire is not only a useful skill, it is a deeply rewarding pursuit with therapeutic properties and even social rewards that pre-date civilisation.

The first time you turn a spark into a flame and your heart goes ‘woof!’, you’ll begin to understand. I’d like to teach you, and I figure we can also make and use some nifty tools and some downright gorgeous firelighters along the way.

On that note what you should do right after you subscribe is leave a note in comments saying if you would like to see hearts, ghosts, unicorns, or upvotes in the next video.

Thanks for your time. Please support my Patreon, and I hope to see you in the next episode.
Cheers all.


(Music: ‘Featherlight‘ by Lee Rosevere under a Creative Commons license)

Posted by Tim Ireland at 20 June 2018

Category: Scouting

As many of you know, I volunteer as a Scout Leader, and as most of you suspect, I pride myself on bringing new ideas to the role. I’ve held back on showing off some of my niftier ideas for far too long, so today I’m going to kick off with my version of the obstacle course: it’s a ‘spider web’ obstacle course made almost entirely out of string.

The following is mainly inspiration for other Scout and youth leaders, but I’m also involved in the youth activity programme at Byline Festival, so if you’d like to come along and bring your kids, myself and other volunteers will be creating and running an ‘Obstacle Course Course’ alongside other events from 24th – 27th August 2018 at Pippingford Park. Tickets are available now.

1. Choosing a site

I typically like to choose a small grove with any boughs that bend or arch toward the ground or grow in any other way that creates potential frames for your webs. So, pine and fir are rubbish, but willow, hawthorn and hazel are ideal. Oak is nearly always too big unless you are building a giant web out of rope, but I’ll get to that soon enough.

Spider Web Obstacle 1

2. Clearing (some) nettles

If you see a big tangle of blackberry or rose, save yourself the trouble if you can and choose a new location. If there are nettles everywhere (common on farmland and campsites because they thrive on phosphates), then this is perfect. Plan your course and only remove nettles from desired pathways. This way you can use existing nettles to prevent people from going in the wrong direction, and/or from blundering into an unplanned and potentially dangerous obstacle beyond the course (e.g. wire fences, ditches, bits of metal sticking out of the ground, and so on).

Spider Web Obstacle 2

3. Building string webs

The process is very simple. Using ordinary white cotton twine, you tie off a small circle of string with a non-slip knot, and then suspend that circle from a branch or branches. Then you anchor it with eight to ten lines radiating out from this same circle (‘radial threads’), tying your lines to branches above, trunks to the left and right, and – where necessary – small pegs in the ground. By this stage, it should look like a bicycle wheel (i.e. with spokes). Then you finish of the web with some larger circles around your small circle (‘spiral’ threads): you can tie or simply twist these around each radial thread until the string comes around to meet itself.

There’s a knack you pick up after trying and failing for a bit (like running a secondary radial thread here and there to tighten your circles), but other than that, it really is that simple. Just keep thinking like a spider, and following their rules*.

(*No biting!)

Once any young people have the knack, have them show other young people so they can practice their teaching skills.

Spider Web Obstacle 3

4. Turning problems into opportunities

You will find as you build your web that the variations from tree to tree make it difficult to create a ‘perfect’ web. You shouldn’t worry about this too much, as your web needs to have at least one gap big enough for a person (or small person) to pass through, and it is going to have to be near(ish) to the ground, where most of your problems will occur.

(Your little grove of webs will also look spookier if your webs are a bit tatty, so don’t worry about the odd error or bit of broken string… it only adds to the drama.)

Spider Web Obstacle 4

5. The bells! The bells!

Every boot sale I go to, I keep a sharp eye out for the stalls where they’re selling baby toys with jingle bells attached to them. Then I detach the jingle bells and add them to my kit.

I’ve found the easiest way to make bells suitable for traps is to thread a bell onto each arm of a small to medium ‘foldback clip’, but sometimes I will leave large toys intact for immediate attachment to the larger rope webs (see below).

Foldback clips last for ages, you can thread bells right onto the arms once you detach them, and you can buy them in the dozens for next to nothing if you don’t already have a whole bunch of them stinking up your stationery cupboard.

If your web is taut, you can clip bells almost anywhere, and any significant contact with the web will set it off, but to make your obstacle course more challenging, you’ll want to hang at least one set of bells in each gap of your web (i.e. so the person passing through that gap has to be very careful not to touch these bells at all).

Jingle Bells and String Box

6. Whistles

I typically run the course with a referee pacing the runner, keeping an eye on proceedings and letting out a short blast on a whistle whenever a bell (or other alarm) goes off. This makes it easier to keep score from the start/finish line. A penalty of 5 seconds for each alarm set off usually works out best, but you can go to as little as 3 seconds per if you think you can handle the maths. Attach your whistles to lanyards, or they will go missing.

7. Bells & whistles

My kit has been growing over the years, and I’ve accumulated gadgets designed to overcome the usual problems, and you might want to think about getting a couple of the following yourself (assuming you can get them dirt cheap like I did by keeping an eye out at car boots).

If there are gaps that are too wide to string a web, I usually run an infra-red ‘shopkeepers’ beam that they need to jump over or crawl under as best they can without breaking the beam and triggering the doorbell-style alarm. Two of these beams in a row make a great obstacle if the first one is so low you have to jump it and the second is so high you have to crawl under it: just picture how difficult it is to decelerate after the jump before you have to crawl carefully under the second beam.

On a recent camp, we had a problem with stagnant water chewing up valuable real estate, so we ran the course up to its edge and used motion-activated sound players that allow you to record your own warning message. Everybody who reached delicately through the a special web to ‘ring Shrek’s doorbell’ was suddenly surprised by Shrek yelling in their ear (“I said get ooot of mah swamp!”) and again behind them when they ran to the next web (“Yeah, you better run, donkey!”).

I’ve also toyed with Yoda (do the voice I can, hrmm?) and a few Harry Potter references because the concept of giant spiders in the woods triggers something very specific in most young people today (I paraphrase, but “I would like to remind you all that the Forest in the grounds is out-of-bounds to students who do not wish to die a gruesome death”).

Shrek's Swamp - Spider Web Obstacle

8. Added difficulty: McGuffins

I like to add a ‘McGuffin’ to games when things get too easy (i.e. dull): this is an object that exists solely to make the game more interesting and move things along. I have couple of motion-detector toys that go off if they get jiggled around too much, so the course can be made more challenging simply by requiring that every runner carry one (i.e. they have to get through the course without setting it off). There’s also a very common velcro bracelet for babies with jingle bells on it, and I have adjusted several of these for older/larger humans: this essentially requires the runner to take the course on in slow motion, which is extremely tough on your core (you have to engage in a series of contortions and hold them for much longer than you would if simply slipping through a gap at speed). There are also your natural everyday body tremors to deal with. (Ah, you didn’t know about them, did you? You will.)

There’s also a blindfold or two in my kit and one day I hope to own a tambourine, because that would be hilarious to watch.

Obstacle Course McGuffins

9. Rope webs

If you want to build a giant web out of rope or baling twine (pictured) instead of string, you will need to use some old trampoline springs or similar on the anchor points of almost every radial thread, because this is the only way to keep the tension up on this scale. A giant rope web to complement your grove of string webs makes a great centrepiece, and an excellent start and/or finish line that is a challenge in itself.

It is on this point that I will say that – with or without a rope web – you want to build your course in a circuit, so the start line is also the finish line (or only a short distance away).

Rope Spider Web Obstacle

10. This works best as two activities, not just one

If you take a peek at the main box for building webs, you will see multiple balls of twine and multiple pairs of scissors. This is because I prefer to run this activity in two parts:

Part One is building the course in conjunction with young people. I take them onto the site and talk them through any opportunities I see, and where I think the course might run. Then I open it up to ideas, and finally we mark out our agreed course and build. Not only do young people like to build their own webs, but some invest even deeper in the concept to the extent that they are planner/builders, adding difficulty and ingenuity to their own obstacle course concepts as they go. Sometimes this happens with individuals, often it happens in teams; it’s invigorating to watch. Time-permitting, I allow for extra building after we have run the course once or twice, because fine-tuning brings out these same qualities all over again.

Part Two is running the course, and it is here you reward young peoples’ desire to be the grown-up and take charge. You will find plenty of young people volunteering to be referee, mainly because they get to use a whistle. Like a boss.

You’ll also need a stopwatch, and a large ‘blackboard’ (i.e. some old plywood with a few coats of dark-coloured matt or satin paint). This is where you record the fastest time(s), in real time, right on the start/finish line. It adds spice to the feeling of competition in the air.

Rope Spider Web Obstacle 2

That’s about it. I know it’s not a full-on instructable, but you’re a capable person, and I’m sure you’ll work it out in your own way. Do get in touch if you have any questions… or, even better, if you know how I can get myself a job doing this all the time, instead of on occasional weekends.

Cheers all.

A reminder: We will be building and running an obstacle course course just like this one at the Byline Festival from 24th – 27th August 2018 at Pippingford Park. You can buy tickets here.

Detail: Spider Web Obstacle

Posted by Tim Ireland at 23 November 2011

Category: Scouting

Well, I managed to keep that secret for over two years, but the jig was up this morning after one of the lads started tweeting at me last night.

[No harm done, mate. It was bound to happen sooner or later, and I should have been clearer about the need for discretion.]

Ladies and gentlemen, boys and girls, for many, many years in my youth I was active in the Scout movement in Australia, and for the past couple of years I have been volunteering as an Assistant Scout Leader here in the UK.

Tim at a 'secret fire ceremony' this time last year

Pardon any of the boring bits in the following. There are some people who will seek to exploit this information for political reasons, as you are probably aware. And we begin on that note…

1. This is why smears by certain Conservatives have been such a cause for alarm. I’m sure I do not need to explain why. It is also a major reason why I am so disappointed in my two local MPs (Anne Milton and Jeremy Hunt) who do know about this and have had it in their power this whole time to reign in their activists (if not their fellow MPs), but have instead chosen to dole out generic and unhelpful advice like “call the police if you have a problem” (Hunt). I am beginning to doubt their commitment to this Big Society concept they’ve been pushing. Or maybe they’d rather I wasn’t part of it.

2. Yes, this is what all those secret fire ceremonies were about. Now you know.

3. It’s also where I disappear to for extended periods each summer. Hey, why lie on a beach when you can dig a latrine?

4. It’s not an ultra-secret. There are even some fellow leaders in my Twitter stream. I met one at a local hustings. (No, not that one.)

5. Can I please ask that we all try to be discreet about the name/location of the troop? Mainly for the sake of other peoples’ privacy. Thanks.

(Note: I’ve greyed-out my ‘gang colours’ in the above picture for this very reason.)

6. Like most people in my position, I will be referring to myself as a ‘scout leader’ most of the time. I ask you to take this for what it is; shorthand. In any troop there can only be one Leader (kind of like Highlander, but with smaller blades and a fold-out can opener) so my official title is ‘Assistant Scout Leader’, but to most people outside the movement this sounds like I’m wearing a pair of training wheels or something, which is probably why so many people use the ‘shorthand’ version. As I plan to. I know it may seem ridiculous to most, but I need this paragraph to head off any pathetic ‘exposé’ regarding my credentials.

7. Some of you will obviously have questions about my being an agnostic. I can think of at least one woman who will want to shout that question from the rooftops as if it is of critical importance. I would like to take the time to articulate my position on this later, but for now, all you need to know is that the Scout Association in the UK acknowledges the difference between an agnostic and an atheist, and they do (quietly) recognise that a skeptic has a valid role to play in the spiritual development of our youth (more). It is a matter I’m happy to discuss, but I wish to take care about what I publish so I can further the progress that’s already been made, without rushing the issue.

8. Our movement needs leaders. (This means YOU, John Q. Skeptic.) I have been hoarding documentation of some really fun projects I’ve been working on, so now the secret is out and there’s no going back, you can expect me to start blogging some of the detail very soon, and being very noisy on the recruitment front in the process.

9. But don’t expect to see any ‘human shield’ photos on this blog. I will be blogging detail about the activities I’m been putting together, not the scouts themselves.

Cheers all. ‘ Dyb dyb dyb’ and all that.

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