26 October 2008

The anatomy of a windproof lighter, or when your Zippo doesn't light

Note: For those of you who are wondering, I'm trying to write linkbait. The existing body of Zippo HOWTO is teh suck. Note further that this article applies to all Zippo-type windproof lighters.

In a year and a half of owning a Zippo lighter, I've experienced challenges at getting the damn thing to behave… sometimes the Zippo won’t light, no matter how many times I strike it.

Symptoms and problems

The striker rolls with difficulty, or not at all

This problem is caused by a used up flint which needs to be replaced.

At the risk of stating the obvious, you replace the flint by removing the screw in the bottom of the lighter, shaking out the remnants of the old flint, putting in a new one, and replacing the screw.

If the flint stops working unexpectedly, you can usually get a few more uses out of it by rolling the striker to the inboard side of the lighter by a quarter turn, then using it normally.

The lighter throws sparks, but doesn’t light

When this problem occurs, it might be caused by:

  • Fuel depletion;
  • Fuel starvation; or
  • Wick burnout.
Refuelling the lighter

Lift the pad at the bottom of the lighter and deposit fuel on the batting underneath. Two or three passes from the spigot across the batting is usually enough.

If the lighter hasn't been used for a while, you’ll probably want to leave the lighter upright and open for a minute or two, to give the fuel vapor enough time to work its way up through the batting and wick. It’s also quite likely that a disused lighter placed back into service will need to be refuelled several times at close intervals, early on.

If due to habit, impatience, or inexperience you’re inclined to overfuel the lighter, hold the lighter perfectly upside down by its edge between the tips of two fingers with no obstructions between the chimney and the surface underneath — preferably a sink — and hold the lighter motionless until it no longer drips fuel through the chimney. Failure to exercise care as described will result in fuel spreading onto your clothes or hands, which is something to avoid.

Finally, take care to remember that fuel starvation cannot be fixed by adding more fuel to the lighter.

Resolving fuel starvation

Fuel starvation occurs when there is fuel in the lighter, but fuel vapor doesn’t find its way to the chimney. A Zippo user will see this kind of behavior under two circumstances:

  • The batting inside the lighter is too loose; or
  • The wick needs repair or replacement.

The first of these causes is easy to repair: remove the screw and pad, and using a suitably long, skinny, blunt object repeatedly apply pressure to the batting on both sides of the conduit that holds the screw until the batting ceases to give. By the time you’re done, you should have roughly ¼ inch (6–7 millimeter) clearance between the limit of the batting and the bottom of the lighter.

Wick repair and replacement

If your lighter doesn’t work and the portion of the wick in the chimney appears to be charred, you’ll need to cut off the used portion of the wick and pull up a fresh length.

Dealing with the wick of a Zippo lighter is a delicate process. To adjust or replace one, you need initially to:

  1. Remove the screw and pad.
  2. Carefully remove the batting.

The official word from Zippo is that the user should take care to arrange the removed pieces of batting in such a way that it will be possible to put them back into the lighter by the same order in which they were originally arranged, though experience teaches me that doing so is a feat of memory that’s beyond the abilities of most folks.

Once the batting is out of the lighter:

  1. Use a pair of tweezers or wire cutters to pull out the charred length of wick.
  2. Cut that length off with the tools at hand.
  3. Tug the wick back down from the bottom of the lighter so that it ends slightly below the top of the chimney.
  4. Replace the batting, making an effort to wind the wick through its separate pieces.
  5. Tamp down the batting as described above.
  6. Replace the pad and screw.

The wick itself is 2½ inches (63.5 millimeters) long off the shelf and the chimney is only about one-fifth of that height, so even the heaviest of smokers should be able to go at least a year before they need to consider wick replacement.


A good pocket-size multitool with wire cutters is probably the best thing to use when servicing a windproof lighter, though if you don’t have one of those you can get by with the following:

  • pair of tweezers
  • cheap paring knife
  • flathead (or multi-bit) screwdriver

The tweezers are the best tool for both removing the batting and threading the wick through the chimney of the lighter, and the knife — or better yet, a pair of wire cutters — is to cut the end of the wick.

The parts of the lighter
  • Exterior case
  • Latch
  • Chimney
  • Striker
  • Flint
  • Screw & spring
  • Screw conduit
  • Wick
  • Batting
  • Pad

The latch rests behind the chimney and keeps the lid closed.

The chimney is what makes the lighter windproof, and is integral to the structure of the lighter itself.

The striker is the reeded wheel that causes the flint to throw sparks.

The screw and spring push the flint all the way up to the striker, when properly installed.

The screw conduit holds the screw and spring, and is threaded at the bottom for the screw. It’s notable for the fact that two pieces of batting fit between it and the outside of the lighter.

The wick is made from copper alloy wires interwoven with cloth thread — thus the need for wire cutters — and is meant to be saturated with fuel vapor.

The batting is made from a heavier grade of fiber than normal cotton balls; it serves as a fuel storage medium that attenuates evaporation.

The pad is made of cloth fiber that takes up fuel poorly in comparison to the batting, holds the batting in place, and consequently prevents fresh fuel from leaking through to the bottom of the exterior case.