What You Need to Know About Zippos and Lighter Fuel Alternatives

Avatar David Stillwell  |  Updated: February 16, 2021
What You Need to Know About Zippos and Lighter Fuel Alternatives

How much do you know about the nuts and bolts of lighters? And, perhaps equally important, how much do you know about fuel for your lighters?

Today I am going to delve into the world of lighters and provide you with what you need to know about lighters and lighter fuel for survival.

What You Need to Know About Zippos and Lighter Fuel | Backdoor Survival

The Mystique of Zippo Lighters

What I am going to say in this article was inspired by this honest to goodness dialogue I had online:

“I’ve inherited an old Zippo cigarette lighter from my grandfather. Can I use charcoal lighter fluid in it?”

Well, why not? There’s Zippo brand lighter fluid, Ronson/Ronsonol brand lighter fluid, and even charcoal lighter fluid.

What You Need to Know About Zippos and Lighter Fuel | Backdoor Survival

It’s like a discussion with my wife about cheese balls. To me, a cheese ball is made from semi-soft cheese, is the size of a baseball, and is rolled in crushed nutmeats. To her, cheese balls are the size of marbles, made of puffy cheese-curl stuff, and contain orange dye that sticks to your teeth. Both are popular at parties.

Turns out there are different things named cheese balls. Likewise, there are different things named lighter fluid.

Lighter Fluid: Bad Information

The Internet question “Can I use charcoal lighter fluid in my Zippo?” received an Internet answer (but not from me):

“If you fill a Zippo with charcoal lighter fluid, you can kiss your eyebrows and nose hairs goodbye. And any other part of your anatomy that’s close to the explosion when it occurs.”

That answer is 100% wrong. It was followed immediately by a second 100% wrong answer: “Charcoal lighter fluid in a Zippo? No way. You must use butane.”

And a response: “Well, I finally got my Zippo apart but I still can’t figure out how to put in the butane.”

My take? As Albert Einstein said, “The difference between stupidity and genius is that genius has its limits.”

Zippo Lighters and Butane

Let’s deal first with the Zippo/butane thing.

Zippo lighters were patented in 1936 and saw their heyday with the GI’s of World War II. Zippos used liquid fuel (white gas). The tiny fuel tank was stuffed with cotton fluff so that the liquid didn’t spill into your pocket. A wick brought the fuel to the flame by capillary action.

Zippo’s reign as king of the lighters ended in 1973 when Bic introduced disposable butane lighters that could provide 3,000 lights before wearing out. How do you spell, “Goodbye Zippo”? Answer. “Flick my Bic.”

Today, a new Zippo and a small can of fuel, you can buy a package of five butane lighters (Bic knock-offs, pre-filled with fuel) for one buck at the Dollar Store. One Zippo and a can of fuel equals 78 butane lighters.

Judging by the Internet, people born after 1970 may have never seen a Zippo-style lighter. They sincerely believe that butane is the one and only fuel ever used in cigarette lighters.

So we need to understand butane a little better . . .

What You Need to Know About Zippos and Lighter Fuel | Backdoor Survival

ABOVE (L to R): (1) disposable butane lighter; (2) refillable butane lighter; (3) butane refill canister; (4) to fill, hold both canister and lighter upside down, mate the fittings, push until it feels good.

Water boils and turns from a liquid to a gas at 212 degrees F. Butane boils and turns from a liquid to a gas at 31 degrees F. Just about the time ice is melting, butane is boiling. That’s why it’s a gas at room temperature. In a refill canister, butane is a liquid only by merit of the fact that it’s been put under pressure, not unlike an aerosol spray can.

You can get the butane out of its canister by:

  1. turning it upside down,
  2. holding it at a slight angle, and
  3. pressing the injecting needle onto a hard surface.

The butane comes out as a liquid but you can actually see it bubbling as it boils away. It will volatilize into the atmosphere far too quickly to be of any use in your Zippo. And you won’t like the way it smells either.

And Then There Is Charcoal Lighter Fluid

Okay. We’re finally ready to talk about charcoal lighter fluid which is also known as mineral spirits. If you remember, that was the original question. Can you substitute charcoal lighter fluid for Zippo/Ronsonol lighter fluid? And the answer came back, “No! It will explode.”

WRONG! But where does the idea come from that charcoal lighter fluid is explosive?

IT STARTS HERE: In an effort to hurry things along, charcoal lighter fluid is sometimes sprayed on a charcoal grill that is already burning.

Note: Let us be clear here. We’re talking about a CHARCOAL grill, not a GAS grill!

The lighter fluid doesn’t break into open flame because the burning charcoal itself only glows; no FLAME exists to ignite the fluid. (And ignition does require a flame or a spark. Don’t you remember dowsing your cigarette in a cup of gasoline to impress the girls?)

But, although no ignition takes place, the fluid gets hot. It begins to vaporize and smoke. It goes above its “flash point” but there’s still no flame to set it off. When it reaches its “auto-ignition temperature” (i.e. 473 degrees F where a flame is no longer required) – POOF!

The flameless preheating vaporizes a large quantity of liquid before ignition occurs. And that’s the problem. Half a teaspoon is not a threat to your eyebrows. Half a cup is a threat to your house. Flameless preheating does not get proper credit for the results.

What You Need to Know About Zippos and Lighter Fuel | Backdoor Survival

No “explosion” can occur as long as mineral spirits remains at room temperature. At room temperature, mineral spirits is a liquid. And a liquid must vaporize and turn to gas before it can OXIDIZE . . . that is, combine with oxygen . . . that is, BURN.

This is Ninth Grade science.

Side note: To those not familiar with the term, “mineral spirits”, it sounds like it’s plural. It’s not. Mineral spirits is singular. It does take some getting used to.

Zippo lighter fuel is highly volatile. Technically it is flammable. It readily evaporates. At room temperature, vapors are always present that can be ignited with a flame or even a spark.

For all practical purposes, charcoal lighter fluid does not evaporate at room temperature and is termed combustible. Vapors are too few and far between to catch fire. Like candle wax, it must be preheated to the point of forming a vapor before ignition can take place. A match performs the preheating function as well as the ignition-of-vapors function.

As fuel in a Zippo, charcoal lighter fluid, like motor oil, will not work. Spinning the striker wheel will create a shower of sparks but the sparks won’t produce enough heat to vaporize the fuel. The lighter will not light, much less explode. Your nose hairs are safe.

How To Fill A Zippo Lighter

What You Need to Know About Zippos and Lighter Fuel | Backdoor Survival

ABOVE (L to R): Refilling a Zippo:

  1. First pull the innards out of the case.
  2. Then turn the inner assembly upside down and lift the felt retainer.
  3. Insert the spout of the fluid can and squeeze.
  4. The juice flows out of the can and into the cotton fluff inside the lighter. The fluid can is simply a can. It is not pressurized like a butane canister.

Zippo Lighter Fuel Alternatives and Substitutes

But this brings up an interesting possibility. Although we can’t use combustible liquids (diesel fuel, kerosene, mineral spirits) in a Zippo, can we substitute other flammable liquids (gasoline, Coleman fuel, acetone)? Will they work?

But first, let’s address flash point, flammability, and combustibility.

“Flash point” is the lowest temperature at which a liquid can form an ignitable mixture in air. OSHA defines a combustible liquid as “any liquid having a flash point at or above 100° F.” Kerosene and diesel fuel are both “combustible.”

A flammable liquid has a flash point below 100° F. Coleman fuel (a.k.a. white gas) and gasoline are both “flammable.”

· Let’s start at ground zero. Zippo and/or Ronsonol lighter fluid. Do they work in a Zippo-style cigarette lighter?

Yes.

· Coleman fuel. Does it work in a Zippo lighter?

Yes. White gas with a dash of perfume equals cigarette lighter fluid.

· Other flammable liquids. Gasoline (petrol), lacquer thinner, acetone – do they work?

No. At least not the way I’d hoped.

What You Need to Know About Zippos and Lighter Fuel | Backdoor Survival

The problem is the Zippo wick.

Perhaps it is too small in diameter. Or too big. Or too dense. Or too fluffy. Or the wrong material (Zippo wicks are asbestos). After all, it was engineered to lift one specific fuel, white gas, from the fuel tank to the flame. Acetone was not a consideration.

BUT if you put two drops of acetone (or other flammable liquid) directly on the wick of a Zippo and spin the striker wheel, the acetone will ignite and burn for 30 seconds. And thirty seconds of live flame is not bad. Plenty of time to light a twist of paper or splinter of wood which can then be used to light your candle or your campfire.

Some common flammable liquids:

· VM&P naphtha (i.e. varnish makers’ and painters’ naphtha; naphtha is an alternate name for white gas).

· Gasoline (petrol to the Brits).

· Acetone (nail polish remover).

· Lacquer thinner.

· Rubbing alcohol

· Denatured alcohol (used as shellac thinner and as fuel in marine stoves).

· Dry gas (methanol; a form of alcohol).

CAUTION: Alcohol flames are hard to see.

IMCO Lighters

There’s an English chap on eBay selling IMCO lighters. Developed in the 1930’s, they’re made in Austria and appear to be Europe’s answer to the Zippo. From the eBay sales pitch:

“These lighters are a great piece of kit, they are more user friendly than a Zippo, cheaper and double up as a candle . . . Runs on Lighter fluid or Petrol . . . IMCO has produced and sold over HALF A BILLION (yes half a billion!!) lighters . . .”

What You Need to Know About Zippos and Lighter Fuel | Backdoor Survival

In the interest of article completeness, I bought one. What intrigued me was the possibility of multi-fuel use. And, indeed, with its cotton wick, it operates on gasoline very nicely.

Unfortunately, someone might believe that “These lighters . . . double up as a candle.”

IMCO as candle

ABOVE Left: The set-up. I inserted the IMCO “candle” in a 5/8s diameter hole so it wouldn’t get knocked over. Center: All is well. Right: This happened suddenly at 15 minutes. Sorry the focus is poor; it caught me off guard.

So there you have it, everything you, as a prepper, needs to know about fuel for your Zippo lighters!

The Final Word

When it comes to lighters, I personally own a dozen genuine BICs, as well as a tray of 100 BIC knockoffs. The later are stored in my gear closet for use or barter down the road; I don’t trust them enough to carry them in my pack.

I also have a Zippo, plus a dozen or so of those butane BBQ wands. Yes, I can start a fire with my Swedish Fire Steel, but, as they say, it is a lot simpler to flick my BIC.

Helpful Links

Bargain Bin: Below you will find links to the items related to today’s article.

Zippo Street Chrome Pocket Lighter: Zippo has been creating virtually indestructible, windproof refillable lighters for more than 75 years. The Zippo Street Chrome pocket lighter is no exception. This windproof lighter features a classic textured chrome finish and carries the same lifetime guarantee–to either work or be fixed by Zippo free of charge–for life. All wearable parts including flints and wicks are replaceable. Every prepper should own at least one Zippo!

100 BIC-style Lighters Disposable Classic Lighter: These are great to have on hand for both survival and barter use.

10 Pack Refillable Wand Lighters: These wand-style lighters are typically sold for use with BBQs and fire pits. Me? I use then to light my gas stove and gas fireplace when the power goes out. I like that they are refillable.

The New 2000-Hour Flashlight: With a few simple tools and a lantern-type flashlight, you can easily build a flashlight that will give off useable light for 2000 hours.

Zippo Premium Lighter Fluid will keep your Zippo windproof lighter and Zippo Hand Warmer working at its best.

Zippo 6 Value Pack of Wicks and Flints: Like the components of Coleman Lanterns, the bits and pieces of a Zippo lighter are replaceable. If you have a premium Zippo lighter, be sure to stock up on wicks and flints.

Light My Fire Swedish FireSteel: This “Scout” is the one I own. Using this basic pocket fire-starter, you can get a nice fire going under almost any conditions. This is a small, compact version and is my personal favorite.

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56 Responses to “What You Need to Know About Zippos and Lighter Fuel Alternatives”

  1. I used to use charcoal fluid in the 90’s and it always worked fine, other than some black smoke that burns with it. Do they not make it like they used to?

  2. Hey, just FYI, that Einstein quote is misattributed. It apparently may have come from Alexandre Dumas jr (son of the author of The Three Musketeers). In any case, it predated Einstein.

    Einstein is often claimed to have said “Only two things are infinite, the universe and human stupidity, and I’m not sure about the former.”

    This, too, appears to be contrived, the earliest source seeming to be around 1990 (which makes it more likely influenced by the commonly misattributed quote you used).

    Anyway, this is a very helpful article. I remember using charcoal lighter fluid in a zippo, and it burning just splendidly, but only after touched with another flame. This is a great explanation why.

    I did get gasoline to light once in a zippo, and the flames were about a foot high. Pretty sure I lost some portion of hair. Don’t remember if it lit directly, but I thought it had. Certainly, it is not a good choice for a Zippo-style lighter. Will stick with the real thing.

    Thanks!

  3. Zippo used to make a plastic container to fill the lighter one time. If interested, I can send you a photo. You can use a small eye dropper bottle to carry enough fuel to refill the Zippo.

  4. Goof Off, the sticky residue remover used to come in a little can almost identical to Zippo Lighter fluid. In ’98, right before I left active duty, I absentmindedly reached into a kitchen cabinet and filled up my lighter with some. It lit and burned perfectly, but smoked seriously black. Don’t know if the stuff is the same today, but it did ignite and burn well.

  5. when I was in the navy we would use jet fuel in the lighters. it is but a high grade of diesel fuel. to address the advantages of propane is that its fuel is used for other things. such as a soldering iron that is an indispensable tool to repair a multitude of items. small torches to solder copper pipes ( to make and repair stills.) knowing what we may substitute and get you by in an emergency but not plan on there use as permanent use. just as it would be foolish to use a multifunction handy dandy do all knife as your primary survival tool. anything used for survival is posable to use in multiple ways. fire and the elements it uses are flexible only so far and maintain safety. in my 76 years, I still have all my digits. while some may not be functional they are all there. Why? I maintain safety first in everything I do. more than once it has proved to save me and others from disaster. so as a word of experience coming from decades of close proximity to danger the smallest must be looked upon as no less than the greatest. in civilization, a small cut is of little consequence unable to attend to it can cost you a hand or your life. don’t try anything you are not sure of. and try it when you are not in a hurry or emergency. knowledge weighs nothing. the lessons by backdoor survival are our primary reading every day and much more desirable than my small contribution. thanks for your excellent posts——–Grampa

    • Hay Grandpa the last time I looked jet fuel is highly filtered kerosene. Not to say your not right but a friend who works on jets saved me from getting a foolish kid from trying to purchase 5 gallons of jet fuel and putting it in my race car. Although he thought he was trying to do me a favor, trying to get what he thought was (jet fuel) his thinking if a jet could run on it my race car would run like like all get out as well. To his dismay my friend at the small airport saved the day for me and draining the tank as well.

  6. I dunno? While I’m typing this I’m watching one of my Zippo lighters with nothing in it but odorless charcoal lighter fluid (The cheap stuff from a big box store that starts with a ‘W’ and I think a ‘mart’ in it…?) and it burns fine. Same for VM&P Naphtha, which at one quart will cost about eight dollars more. It might take a few flicks to start, but once it does, it’s totally fine! No problems. I have Zippo lighters in which I’ve put nothing in them but premium Zippo lighter fluid, and some of them even take a few flicks on the first try! Usually if they have been sitting around for longer than a day, or two. If they aren’t totally dried out that is. Also, both aforementioned fuels even work in my Zippo hand warmers. Though I will admit the charcoal lighter fluid takes a bit more to start up, possibly because you are putting it into direct flame, Idk… But once it does light up, look out. It’s on! And it’s hot!

  7. I put charcoal fluid in my zippo and it works. I took your advice and preheated the copper filament in the wick but rolling my palm against the striker 2-3 times and was then able to strike as normal. Able to also restrike normally for about 5 minutes before needing to “preheat” again. Coming in at $1 for 32 ounces at my local gas station charcoal fuel, while it may be hell on you flint, does work in a pinch if you have a zippo and some charcoal lighter fluid laying around.

  8. “The problem is the Zippo wick…are asbestos…engineered to lift one specific fuel, white gas…a dash of perfume equals cigarette lighter fluid…Coleman fuel sells for $10 per gallon whereas Zippo lighter fluid sells for $88 per gallon when purchased in 4 oz. cans.”

    Thank you very much for saving me tons of money in fuel, I begin to suspect Zippo sold lighter “cheap” but make huge profit on selling fuel! For those who insisted on using “other” fuel, you may have to change your Zippo wick to cotton! Hell, I waved my own wick using 4 cotton and 4 striped wire strands, it works! (How to make rope > YouTube //www.youtube.com/results?q=how+to+make+4+strand+rope )

    • I filled up an old Zippo that I had picked up off the street that had been run over a few times. After re shaping it I tried some cookstove fuel that had been in my shed for several years. It lighted up just fine but did not seem to last very long. Filled it again a week or so ago and worked, but today it does not want to. Does it evaporate faster? Taking it backpacking in Wyoming but not depending on it for the soul fire source. When lighting a back pack stove with a Bic I have seen people remark that they are burning their fingers.

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