Has a cigarette lighter got a soul?
Here in The Shed, where old men meet to swap small screwdrivers and smoke, we are contemplating that question, after having our hearts bruised by the Thorens Single Claw.
The Shed is a place where we fiddle endlessly with old lighters, for the pleasure of seeing a machine come to life.
A petrol lighter is a beautifully simple summary of the heart of the combustion engine and, you might argue, of life itself. It draws fuel from a reservoir and as fuel comes out of the wick chimney, it mixes with air and makes a vapour which can be lit with a spark.
It should be simple to fix one and usually it is. But everyone knows the story of the Zippo that just won’t light. Send it back, under the lifetime guarantee, and Zippo will return it, without comment, with a complete new core mechanism simply dropped into the old case. In the world of mass production, it is not really worth fiddling with a stubborn machine. If your local garage came across a carburettor like it, they would simply throw it away and put in another one. So some mysteries remain about why some machines simply disobey the science. It was this unmapped territory, where myths abound and obsessions flourish, that The Shed stepped into in February of the year 2018, when somebody splashed out twenty five quid on the Thorens Single Claw.
The shop asked £30. They reckoned they could have asked twice that if they could say it was in working order. The Shed was persuaded that this was an opportunity to build a sweatshop staffed by old men with sets of small screwdrivers.
Thorens is a Swiss firm, which used to make mechanisms for clocks and music boxes and still makes good record decks. Its first lighter was patented in 1920 and sold through the 1920s, when lighting machines were the bling of the time. The position of the filler screw on this one says it was an early one.
The single claw is a grabbing arm which catches a cog on the striker wheel and turns it against the flint as the cap goes up.
You close the cap against a spring which charges the claw. Press a button to let the cap go and the mechanism turns the wheel and makes a spark next to the wick. It was as near as you got to automatic lighting before electronics and there has always been great admiration for the design. There was a later version with a double claw, which presumably was marginally more robust, but it was not as slim.
It makes a beautiful flame which you can leave to burn for quite a long time without making the casing hot. We have seen it. We wish we had filmed it. American sheds post a lot of pictures of their lighter flames and our shed understands entirely.
However, this, for the time being, is radio.
So listen. The hooked arm which operates the striker wheel will lift away, with a bit of fiddling, and allow the lifting of a spring arm which projects into the flint tube situated above the wheel and bears down on the flint when there is one in there.
We brushed away some soot and fitted a standard Zippo flint and filled up with some lighter fluid or other. Bang. After 100 years of travelling, that beautiful little machine was back on duty.
But then something happened. Something altered the perfect balance of circumstances the machine was engineered to create – enough fuel plus enough air plus enough spark to equal ignition.
It was The Shed that ruined it. And The Shed had to put it right. As Tupper said, if it’s only worth £25 when you don’t know if it works, what’s it worth when you know it doesn’t?
Bang. Fail. Fail. Fail. Bang. Fail, fail, fail, fail. The gaps between successful lights were getting longer. We went through all the novice experiments with filling. Was the stuffing in the fuel tank too wet or not wet enough? We wasted time and fuel on this. Half a dozen squeezes from your fuel can should be enough. If you have gone a bit far, the excess will soon dry out.
We started trimming the wick. But it was breaking up as we exposed it. We bit the bullet and pulled hard and it came out entirely – a bit short but it had some working life in it and we should have kept it. Now, though, we were commited to a refit, which first meant extracting all the old packing through the fuel filling hole – using, mainly, bent paper clips, and some strongish feathers stripped down to quills, plus tweezers various. A gimlet was a good tool for getting a twist.
Surprisingly, no American has yet made a video of the process of rewicking a Thorens.
The Shed can offer an important tip which will have to be included when the film is made. The wick runs through a conical chimney with a knurled base, looks as if it might unscrew. Actually it is clipped into place and will pull out with long-nose pliers. That gives you another hole to poke through to make the stuffing loose. Also gonna make things a whole lot easier when it comes to fitting a new wick.
Eventually, the chamber was emptied of what looked like dirty wool and probably was. All sorts of packing will do but wool is common in old lighters. A quick and easy one to pack and to undo is that hard foam that comes as packing for earphones and so on. Danger is it could melt, if you were having a competition in a cave or something. Some Zippo users recommend rayon balls and there is the same objection there. However, a Zippo is easy to scrape out. Melted plastic would ruin this one, as Tupper points out.
We want a natural material and and cotton wool is as good as anything.
A standard Zippo wick looked about right for diameter for the wick chimney. You can get a measure of diameter by using fine drill bits and reading off the millimetre size on the shaft. But allowing for fluff, it’s a matter of trial and error to get a good fit. Whatever wick you have, we learned to start off by dipping the ends in candle wax. Use enough wax to get a point and thread it down through the loose chimney and put a knot or a tuck or a clip at the top to stop it pulling through. Then push the long end down into the fuel chamber until you can hook it out through the fuel aperture. Then you can stuff either side of it until you get near the bottom and let go.
It’s laborious but it gets easier. For a while, The Shed talked a lot of bollocks about fuel flow theory and kept pulling out bits of stuffing or shoving more in. Waste of time. There might be an optimum pack for competition performance but basically enough to fill the chamber will do. We learned to reassure ourselves by lighting the Thorens with a match. If it gave a good steady flame, which it always did, we had fuel supply.
For a short while, it all worked again, with Zippo wick, Zippo flint and probably Zippo fluid, though we had a couple of other cans around. But then the rot started again. The frustrating thing was, the thing always worked perfectly as a candle – nice flame, which will burn for 20 minutes without making the case too hot to handle. Don’t try that with a Zippo. But it got more and more stubborn about lighting from the spark.
We massaged it. We slept with it. We made the Z for Zippo in the air with it, to make a wind across the wick.
Fail, fail, fail, fail, fail. But still sometimes a bang, to keep us interested.
Massage sometimes did the trick, by priming the vapour chamber with a squeeze of fuel. The cuddling did not get us very far but we relearned the obvious truth that a warm lighter is always nearer ignition than a cold one.
We called up all the Zen we could remember and got into thinking of the old lighter as a kind of life form, created by a repeated chemical process, like the beginnings of ourselves, but with its own DNA, modified by its environment over 100 years. It had a memory of how things should go and we had to tune with it.
We had to coax it back into a proper relationship with its fuel supply. Like getting a robot on your side in Star Wars.
Don’t start off pushing for 10 lights in a row, we told each other. The original contract was to light when required. If it does that, give it a rest. Leave it alone for 24 hours sometimes, let it feel every fibre of itself connecting, priming circuits, firing machine neurons. Most of The Shed slipped out for a pint when we got here.
Okay. Must be the spark.
Zippo flints and most of the alternatives, like Swan, are just a little slim for the Thorens flint tube. Get a jewellers loupe, one of those little eye glasses for close-up inspection, and you can see the flint sits down against the grinding wheel okay and the wheel is clean and rough. Some lighters, the strike wheel can get put back on the wrong way round but with this one the direction of strike is fixed and it clearly throws the spark in the right direction. Hoewever, because the flint is thin, it sits on the wheel with a fraction more angle than it should. Could be making a difference.
A helpful man at Salts of Coventry, one of the last of the British lighter service shops, tipped us off that the Dunhill Red is a slightly fatter flint, made specially for some Dunhill lighters. Got some and they seemed to be perfect. Just the right size and the spark looked fatter to the eye. But not quite good enough to stop the slide downhill.
Somewhere in the Googleverse, on a marvellous website called Toledo Bend, we read that the Thorens used a particularly hard flint because it had a rough wheel. Flint quality became our new obsession. Tupper suggested a welder’s lighting tool – a spark gun mounted on a big spring – might have the right kind of flint. We got hold of some of those but they were too fat to fit. Possibly there is another pattern to be found. Possibly you could grind one down with a Dremel.
But this, probably, was where we turned another corner into too clever by half. The Thorens is not that rare. If it was not running quite happily somewhere on basic Zippo supplies, somebody would surely have mentioned it.
We ended up unable to improve on the Dunhill flint anyway, for the time being. Aviation engineers and motor mechanics looked at the spark and declared it good to the eye. And sometimes, when everything was right, it worked. The point about the hard flint was that a soft one might chew up and bind. No sign of that.
So it was a vapour problem.
What is Zippo fluid? The answer is a mix of petroleum products designed to give optimum performance in a Zippo lighter. No fuel blender will tell you exactly what they do because otherwise you would make your own and save money. But basically most lighter fuels are naptha and naptha (known as White Gas in the USA) is what early Zippos ran on in the 1930s. It is a big element in what we call petrol and the Yanks call gasoline, and some old lighters will run on petrol. But petrol is blended to deal with different problems, like ignition under pressure, and plain naptha should be better for a lighter. However. even naptha is quite a broad definition in chemical terms. And we wondered if the grade our machine was reared on, in the 1920s, evaporated in a slightly different way. Or had Zippo added something which meant it kinda smelled a bit wrong to our baby?
During this line of thought, we read an interesting essay on what will burn in a Zippo by an American travel writer, Ron Brown, who has written a nice series of short clear books on “non-electric light”, explaining what various liquid fuels are and how their functions cross over and conducting experiments with camping stoves and lamps.
The Shed got into correspondence with Ron, who restated the simple rules. If it was not the spark, it was the fuel supply – either wrong fuel or not enough getting through.
One of the reasons Ron wrote his books is he got fed up reading rubbish advice on the internet. But The Shed had already found some comfort there. The web hosts a fair number of Zippo conspiracy theorists who think Zippo has killed off better fuels.
For the first time, we made a deliberate choice to use something else – Newport lighter fuel, made by Keen-Newport of England. And it seemed to make a difference. The candle flame looked bigger. And we got a few lucky lights off the spark before the machine’s enthusiasm died again.
At this point, Tupper suggested dropping the whole thing in a jar of paraffin (aka kerosene). Let it soak for a day, clean off the striking wheel and try again then, with conditions optimised – every corner of the machine reeking with vapour. There might be something in it, we agreed. The unpacking and repacking would have dried the machine out fairly thoroughly.
Didn’t quite work. The paraffin caught ok with a match but burned a little lower than the Newport fuel and would not react to the spark. But in the course of burning it off, we found that the lighter would work off the spark when well heated.
So we tried again with Newport fuel, plus soaking, plus an hour in hot sunshine. Beautiful. Bang bang bang. But once the kickstart was over, we were back to square one. Could get a light again with a drop of fuel in the lid as a primer, or some more warming. But it was a temporary solution.
By this time, we were wondering about aviation fuel. We got back to Ron Brown, who sighed and suggested we were on a wild goose chase. We could get lighter fuel cheaper, by buying it as Coleman camping fuel, for example, but we were not likely to get a better light. He asked if we were exposing enough wick.
Ooh, Ron, we said. We wasted hours playing with wick. One notion to explore was that the fine copper wires which bind Zippo wick together were inhibiting evaporation. We tweezered them out of the top of our wick, like plucking an eyebrow, and it did give a taller flame, although still no ignition. Maybe the whole wick needed to be without wire.
What was an old wick made of? Hard to find out. In the end, after a fair number of experiments, The Shed concluded that it does not matter much. Hemp garden twine, or a bit of old bandage,a fluffy pipe cleaner or a strand of wool will all work. You just want something absorbent that will not melt or burn away too fast. Zippo probably use asbestos. But in 1920?
In the online lore of making fire, there is mention of an old wick design called Scotch Braid. You might get choices like that in America, where making flames is a well served hobby, but many products cannot be exported to the UK. In this country, we ended up dealing with fireworks and fire-eater suppliers and then with a supplier of vaping equipment. None of them had heard of Scotch Braid. But vapers, it turns out, are always fiddling with their machines, trying to maximise the hit and minimise pollution, and they use some of the kind of wicking which used to go in lighters. We spent about a fiver, including postage, on a yard of 3mm braid made of some kind of fibreglass.
It did not fit as tight as it might have but it worked okay on the match test. We went through some more fuel experiments – white spirit, not as good as Newport fuel; methylated spirits, similar. Then we tried weaving a couple of extra strands onto the basic three-core braid for a fatter wick. Finally, we decided the secret was not type of wick but volume of it. And a ball of thin cotton string from The Shed’s own stocks looked perfect. It fitted the chimney nice and snug and produced a nice fat frayed head.
Newport fuel for the final trial before we went mad.
Bang. In fact Boom. For an hour, the Thorens Single Claw gave a flawless final performance. And then it stopped again.
The last lesson it taught us was the limitations of string. It burns away quite quickly and you have to be careful not to let it burn down into the chimney so you can’t get hold of it. String is cheap and we’ve given it plenty. We can get it back. But we cannot get it to light again.
Looks like the Thorens is destined to live in The Shed. At the moment, it is burning diesel, just because we found some. Bit smokey but burns okay as a candle. A classic lighter running on diesel and string and matches. One day we will try Coleman fluid. One day we might find a flint that is man enough for that old wheel. Meanwhile, maybe some lighters won’t light because … well, just because.
* Playing out with Cigarettes & Coffee Blues by Lefty Frizzell. Interesting to see it was written by Marty Robbins – a great songwriter with an unfairly cheesey reputation. This is Lefty singing and playing …