"Traditionally," says J.M. Dulin, of Libertyville, Illinois, "you build a fire by stacking three or more logs in your fireplace’s grate with their sides facing 'out'. A flame is then allowed to burn between those logs and the back wall of the fireplace. This is pretty darned energy inefficient, simply because the pieces of wood tend to block the blaze and prevent its warmth from reaching the room that the fire is supposed to heat."
Is there a more efficient way? Yep. And J.M. invented it. "It won't cost you a nickel to increase the fireplace efficiency as much as 100% by using my method, either," Mr. Dulin says. "All you have to do is stack your fuel a little differently."
Start by placing some kindling in the center of your fireplace's grate. Then lay one split-out section of log across each end of the stack of kindling. Note that these pieces of wood are placed with their rear ends closer together than their front ends. Note, too, that the sections of log actually touch the back wall of the fireplace and that the chunks of fuel should not extend more than an inch or so beyond the front of the grate; if they stick out too far, they can "throw" smoke into the room as the fire burns.
Now lay one or two pieces of wood across the two side logs. Push these last chunks of fuel all the way back so the rearmost piece of wood is shoved right up against the rear wall of the fireplace and the other log (if there is one) is crowded against the first.
"You've just created a `firebox' that's entirely open across its front," says J.M. Dulin. "This allows a great deal of energy to radiate directly into your room as that firebox burns, since there are no large pieces of wood between you and the blaze to block the heat. Besides that, the flame can draw fresh air up through the bottom of the grate quite freely because that grate isn't covered by tightly packed logs. This creates a good draft that makes your fire burn more efficiently."
J.M. points out that his "new, improved" blaze is easy to light too: "Just open the damper and check for a draft flowing up the chimney. If the flue isn't drawing air, twist a sheet or two of newspaper into a tight rope, light it, and hold it up into the vent. This flame will warm the air and cause it to start rising up the chimney. That's your signal to light the main fire in the usual way with twisted papers or a fuzzy stick ... but never gasoline or any other flammable liquid. In just a few minutes, you'll be enjoying all the heat that your fireplace normally puts out, plus a great deal more that ordinarily 'goes up in smoke'."
Eventually, of course, the top log or logs will burn through in the middle and fall down into your wooden "firebox." No problem. Just replace them with fresh chunks of wood. And, if you want a hotter blaze, shove some smaller pieces of fuel right into the firebox parallel to its side logs. (You'll soon note that those side logs do not burn through very readily. Rather, their back ends just seem to "scorch away." When that happens, you can replace them with new pieces of wood and use the old partially burned chunks of fuel as new "top logs" for the firebox.)
In addition to increasing the efficiency of your fireplace, this method of "setting a fire" has another distinct advantage: It allows you to burn greener and damper wood (which "cures" as part of the firebox before becoming part of the blaze) than you ordinarily can get by with.
In more ways than one, then, J.M. Dulin seems to have devised a better way to "lay a blaze" in a fireplace. Whether you use your hearth as a major source of heat or simply to "take off the chill" on exceptionally frigid winter evenings, you should at least give the idea a try. After all, you have absolutely nothing to lose ... and, quite possibly, as much as a 100% increase in efficiency to gain. That's a gamble worth taking!