In movies cool guys don't need a matchbox − they just light a match by scratching it on whatever hard surface − concrete walls, wooden bar tables, leather belts, etc. Is it just a movie trick, or is there actually a type of matches you can do that with?

So far I've tried scratching usual matches on a ton of different surfaces and the heads just smear without even a smoke.

  • $\begingroup$ I figured this has to do with friction, but if there's a better site for this question, please comment. $\endgroup$ – user1306322 Nov 3 '13 at 9:02
  • $\begingroup$ Do you mean the regular matches you need to strike on the side of a matchbox's brownish paint thing? Are they "safety matches"? $\endgroup$ – user1306322 Nov 3 '13 at 9:16
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    $\begingroup$ @user1306322 See en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Match for information. In particular, note the sections on strike-anywhere matches and frictional matches. $\endgroup$ – David H Nov 3 '13 at 9:18
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    $\begingroup$ Yes, those matches existed, I have had them myself. Lightening them by rubbing on the sole of your shoe was popular then. But later on they have been forbidden, they were thought to be too dangerous. $\endgroup$ – Urgje Nov 3 '13 at 13:08
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    $\begingroup$ Wow this question suddenly makes a certain person feel old... $\endgroup$ – rch Jul 9 '14 at 7:56

Most matches these days are safety matches: they're designed to need something more than ordinary levels of friction to ignite, by splitting the combustion materials between the match-head and the striking strip, i.e. the brownish paint thing down the side of the matchbox or across the front of the matchbook.

Most "regular" matches now are safety matches. The brownish strip has red phosphorous in it. The match head has potassium chlorate $\ce{KClO3}$. Combine those two with friction, and you get fire.

There are still striking matches, with heads of phosphorus sesquisulfide $\ce{P4S3}$, still around. Though largely in countries where consumer protection is not yet well-developed.

With sufficient energy, you can still ignite a safety match without the striking strip. But you'll need more energy than the friction of scratching it on a wall or bit of stubble.

(PS Don't play with fire. Get a friendly neighbourhood chemist to play with fire on your behalf.)


These are "strike anywhere" matches http://www.industrialrev.com/strike-anywhere-matches.html They need to be stored securely in a fireproof container, and you should never shake or drop the box, or store them near flammable goods. They have special haz-mat shipping requirements too. Oh, and matches of both kinds can be carcinogenic.


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