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Making a Proper Slow Match

A historical review

No doubt, before the invention of match-sticks in 1829 by J. Walker, a slowly smoldering cord, called match, was the only way to carry a readily available fire all day long with you. It obviously was so common, the match sticks of today adopted the name of the former cord.

By the way, the English word "match" originates from the Greek word "mixa". From there, it first migrated to Rome were it was changed to "mica". Then the French inherited the Latin word and called it "mèche". And, finally, the English changed the French word to "match", after may be 2000 years of migration through the old world . So, with this linguistic review, the utmost importance of the smoldering cord over centuries is made clear.

The oldest recipe for making a match I found in Grimmelshausen's "Simplicissimus" (published 1668). No doubt, Grimmelshausen was an expert. He served the Catholic side as a captain in the 30-years war (1618-1648), which was the last war predominantly fought by match-lock musketeers. There, the musketeers used a tightly twisted hemp or flax cord, which they boiled in a pot, filled with ash and water.(They didn't filtrate the ash residue before boiling).Then the match was thoroughly rinsed with plenty of water and dried. After this it was ready for use. As an allowance, Grimmelshausen reveals to us, what else a match was used for in the 30-years war:

  • Hanging spies and deserters,
  • Timing the relays of the watch. One relay went one shoe (foot) of the burning match. (That was about one and a half hours)
  • Torturing enemies: He tells us a story about a bunch of soldiers who used a knotted match for sawing off a poor enemy's leg who refused to give away information voluntarily.

Grimmelshausen gives us also a definition of an ideal match. He stated:

An ideal match

  • is never consumed,
  • burns hot and ash-free, and
  • is waterproof.

Goals certainly never achieved.

A match was always made from flax or hemp, though nowadays, there are some modern musketeers who make matches from cotton. But cotton never yields a good match, - it burns with too little ember.

Fig. 1:
This beautiful match lock gun (ca. 1600) was copied by the very skilled US-gunsmith, Jurgen Kreckel, Saylorsburgh PA, in 1993, from an original, displayed at the Poldi-Pezzoli museum in Milano (Italy)
Fig. 2:
Note the sharply pointed ember of the match, aiming towards the center of the priming pan.

A recipe for making a competitive slow match

1. Bucking

Raw textile fibers contain a lot of lignin. Plants need this brown colored lignin as a glue to bond its cellulose fibers. But you, as a musketeer, have to get rid of this lignin, since it produces most of a cord's ash.

If the match, used in a match lock musket, produces a lot of ash, this ash may drop in the open priming pan while aiming and then ignite the gun involuntarily. So watch out, always blow off the ash from the match before opening the pan of your musket! Even a bucked match yields some ash.

For bucking a rope, you boil it in a potash solution which dissolves the lignin. Common ash, e.g. from your fire place, contains about 10% potash (potassium carbonate, K2CO3) by weight. It is very alkaline. But you may buy the potash in a drugstore, too.

By the way, the meaning of "bucking" is to boil a textile in a bucket (German: beuchen)

2. Leading

The leading of the match gets us closer to Grimmelshausen's ideal match, though this process is not mandatory. A leaded match burns significantly slower and hotter than an unleaded match. Here, lead acetate serves as a catalyst to control the burning of a match, comparable to the lead-tetra-ethylene used as an additive to gasoline. At least untill the advent of the catalytic converter.

I don't know if the leading of a match was known to Grimmelshausen. He didn't mention it. Certainly it was used in the 19th century, where slow matches still were used by the artillery.

Instruction for making a homemade match

I usually buy 10 meters of flax cord with a diameter of 6 millimeters, jacketed with a braided mantel. Twisted cords are not recommended: Their burning end untwists and forms a brush. What we need is a sharply pointed ember.

Line a stainless steel pot with a hand-towel and fill it with about two liters of ash from your fireplace. (Never use an aluminum pot, since aluminum is soluble in alkaline solutions !!!) Add 1.2 liters of hot water. Let it stand for some minutes and then lift the towel to filter off the brine and wring the residual solution from the ash cake inside the towel. That makes about a 5% potash solution.

Fig. 3:
Stainless steel pot, lined with a towel and filled with ash. Standing on a gas burner on our kitchen hearth.

Coil the cord loosely, fitting the size of the pot. Watch that the cord is covered entirely by the brine. Then heat the pot until the brine just starts to boil. Cover the pot to prevent evaporation and keep it just below the boiling point for about an hour. (This process is called "bucking" by the textile workers). Notice the peculiar smell which is characteristic of any textile factory!

Fig. 4:
The coiled cord, ready to be lowered into the potash solution.

After an hour has passed, discard the now coffee-brown brine and rinse the bucked cord with plenty of water till the rinse water remains clear. Add a cup of vinegar to the final rinsing for neutralizing the last trace of potash (Important).

Then spin the cord coil in your washing machine at maximum speed and let it dry.

Prepare about 100 milliliters of 5% lead acetate solution using distilled water (or rain water) and add two spoons of vinegar (the kind you use to make salad dressing is OK). If a yellowish precipitation appears, add some more vinegar. (This precipitation would be lead carbonate). Put the dried match in a plastic bag and add enough lead acetate solution to make the entire the cord just damp. Close the bag and tread on it to knead it through. Season it for some hours, open the coil and then pull the wet cord trough your rubber-gloved hand to wipe off any surplus lead solution evenly.

Spread the impregnated, damp match loosely and flat on the floor. This will guarantee it will dry evenly. Otherwise lead acetate would concentrate at the last wet remaining areas of the drying match.

Usually, this match will burn at 20 centimeters per hour. Once pinched between the lips of the serpent of your musket, you won't have to hurry up firing. And note, never use saltpeter to "improve" the match. Such a match would burn far to quick and sparkling and hence is prone to ignite the priming charge unexpectedly.

Warning: Lead acetate, also called "lead sugar", is very poisonous when swallowed, whereas skin contact is harmless. Keep it out of reach of children. Lead acetate tastes sweet. Chewing the leaded match would be fatal.
My advice: If you live with small children, omit the leading of your match. Inform older children properly.

In some coutries it's hard to get Lead acetate. Don't worry. It may be easily made from an old car battery and vinegar, according to this recipe:
Look :...Homemade lead acetate

Where to buy slow match?

An excellent, ready made slow match, already bucketed but unleaded, can be ordered at:

Seilerei Kislig ...................www.seile.ch
Breitestrasse 18
8400 Winterthur

Is the inhalation of the smoke of a leaded match poisonous?

The temperature of the ember of a smoldering match I measured at 750 °C. At this temperature the catalyst lead acetate forms yellow lead oxyde (PbO). How much of this compound evaporates at the given temperature?

To investigate this, I set up an apparatus according to the next picture.

Fig. 5:
Here we see the smoke of a 10 cm long match cord beneath a funnel hood, sucked through two washing bottles by a vacuum pump.

A piece of bucked and leaded, burning match was placed on a wire gauze. The smoke then was collected by a funnel and sucked through two successive washing bottles, each filled with 10% nitric acid. After 10 cm of the match were consumed, the soot inside the funnel and the tube was washed with nitric acid and united with the acid of the washing bottels and then the amount of absorbed lead was determined.

It was found: The smoke of one meter of match contains exactly 1.0 milligram of lead (1.0 mg Pb/m).

This is a surprising low concentration. If you, dear reader, would inhale the smoke of one meter of match you'd rather die of smoke poisoning than of lead poisoning. And by the way, watching motorized traffic passing by on a busy street during rush hours would probably cause more lead uptake than shooting a match lock musket at the shooting range all day long.

Last updated: July 2009