Reinventing fire

Local woodworker creates sustainable device that creates fire

John Poland lights Lil’ Sparky with nothing more than a tiny piece of char cloth and a swift hand movement.

John Poland lights Lil’ Sparky with nothing more than a tiny piece of char cloth and a swift hand movement.

Photo By Christine G.K. LaPado

An unassuming, bespectacled Butte County resident named John Poland recently acquired a provisional patent from the United States Patent and Trademark Office for his clever invention—a fire piston he has trademarked as Lil’ Sparky.

While fire pistons have been patented in Europe, where they were particularly popular before the invention of matches in 1826, Poland’s device is the first to be patented in the United States (a couple of people have claimed to have patented fire pistons in the U.S., but Poland’s patent-application process turned up none).

What the heck is a fire piston? It’s a question most people would ask.

A fire piston consists of a cylinder into which a tight-fitting plunger, or piston, is quickly rammed, causing the small piece of flammable material placed on the end of the piston to ignite strictly by adiabatic compression—no heat is transferred. The smoldering tinder—often a piece of shredded juniper bark, Chaga tree fungus, mullein pith or “char cloth” made from cotton material charred via a simple “pyrolitic” method—is then used to light kindling. It’s an ingenious way to start a fire without matches or a lighter. Survivalists have known about it for years.

Fire pistons actually came into being thousands of years ago in Southeast Asia and the Pacific Islands, among native cultures that used blow pipes for weapons (the design is similar).

“It’s one of the oldest fire-starting methods on the planet and virtually unheard of,” the 62-year-old Poland said. He recalled when he first approached the patent office with his idea for Lil’ Sparky: “They told me there’s only two ways to create a flame—friction and spark. I said, ‘Oh no, there’s another way—you just haven’t heard about it.’ ”

Poland shows how to quickly depress Lil’ Sparky’s piston to create a spark.

Photo By Christine G.K. LaPado

Poland—an ex-Navy-man-turned-artist/woodworker who resides in a secluded home in the woods outside of Paradise—made his first working fire piston approximately three months ago, after watching a YouTube video showing fire-piston construction by a Semelai man from Malaysia.

Unlike the standard single-cylinder device, Poland’s elegant, carved-wood fire piston features an innovative addition of a “rope lighter” built into a second, adjacent cylinder.

The rope-lighter part of Lil’ Sparky functions as a built-in “tinder bundle”—“a Native American survival tool,” as Poland explained it. A tinder bundle—a nest-like bundle of finely shredded combustible material, such as bark—is an ancient method of carrying a spark from place to place to start a fire. With Lil’ Sparky, one creates a spark with the piston, then transfers it to the length of rope where it smolders, ready to light a fire, until extinguished.

“It’s a modern-day spark carrier. The Indians would love this thing,” Poland said with a twinkle in his eye, as he held up a prototype he hand-carved from cocobolo wood.

“Lil’ Sparky will give you the ability to create the spark, and extend the burning time of the spark,” he explained of his new-and-improved fire piston.

“It will help keep landfills free of Bic lighters, which are nonrefillable,” added Poland, or it can provide a source of fire in the event that a large-scale disaster makes buying matches or lighters impossible. “If there’s a truckers’ strike,” for instance, “the stores will be empty in three days.”

Various versions of Lil’ Sparky, including one made from a carved-buffalo-bone needle case from Borneo. In general, Poland carves his fire pistons from different types of wood, such as cocobolo, walnut and redwood burl, tulipwood and sandalwood.

Photo By Christine G.K. LaPado

Poland based the rope-lighter part of Lil’ Sparky on World War I-era rope lighters that were made from a piece of cotton rope pulled through a bullet casing with the end cut off. Rope lighters—lit by the spark from a bayonet run quickly across the barrel of a gun, a helmet, a rock or a shovel—glowed, rather than burned brightly, and were passed around to light cigarettes in foxholes and trenches at night when it was important not to be too visible to the opposing army.

Poland said his father taught him how to make a rope lighter when he was a teenager.

He said he is keen on emphasizing the importance of a person’s knowing how to make char cloth (an easy-to-follow instructional video using old, white-cotton T-shirt material is available at

“When you’re in nature and you’re in wet conditions and you can’t find readily ignitable material, it’s good to have prepared char cloth,” offered Poland. “The char cloth will accept any spark from any source, such as a magnifying glass. … If a person has a piece of char cloth, all they have to do is get a spark to it, and they can keep a family warm” in an emergency.

Poland said he is in the process of approaching potential buyers, including environmental groups and boating supply stores, about Lil’ Sparky.

“I can’t say I’m in business yet, because I’m just the inventor,” said Poland, adding that he soon will get his retail license so that he can respond to those who have shown an interest in Lil’ Sparky, including the U.S. military, he said.

In Poland’s near future: The creation of a hatchet containing a fire piston in the handle.

“We’re in the middle of a green evolution—not revolution,” said Poland. “Folks that are self-reliant will have a head start, and an ability to help others. The simple way of life is probably the only way to go to help the planet at this point.”

Did you know?

Photo By

More than 1.5 billion disposable lighters end up in the landfill annually, according to green website 50 Ways to Help the Planet (

Much better to use matches—or a fire piston—instead.