As a boy, I often employed the classic woodsman’s trick of using a candle to ignite damp tinder materials. But an entire candle was overkill — all I really needed to get wet tinder flaming was a candlewick that burned hotly for the minute or two needed to create a self-sustaining fire.
My basic “fire wick” is just cotton string that has been saturated with melted paraffin, allowed to cool and harden, and then cut into lengths. (Don’t use synthetic strings — they burn poorly and emit toxic fumes.) Cotton string costs about $2 per roll and can be found in department, hardware and grocery stores. Paraffin is sold in supermarkets for about $1 per pound (look where canning supplies are stocked), or you can melt down candle ends.
To begin, melt paraffin in a double boiler in a ventilated place where there’s no risk of fire. Wear gloves, and never heat the wax to the point of smoking — smoke is a warning that it’s about to catch fire. (If the wax bursts into flames, cover the pot and turn off the heat to contain them.)
To make the fire wicks, lower a length of cotton string into an old saucepan in which a pound of paraffin has been heated to its liquid state. Pluck one end of the paraffin-saturated string from the pot with pliers and lay it out to cool and harden. Stiffened strings can be cut into 2-inch sections and then packaged in waterproof containers.
To use a fire wick, fray one end into a mass that flames at the touch of a match. Lay the lighted fire wick onto a small platform of sticks, add more fire wicks as needed, and slowly build a tipi of pencil-thick dead twigs around its perimeter. Add larger sticks as the fire grows until you’ve achieved a crackling blaze.