It’s been a long time since we dwelled in caves and most of us have lost the innate ability to start a fire efficiently. So here is a chapter from “The World According to Cam” on how to start a fire. Don’t assume that the company that sells the woodstove to you will be able to tell you how to use it properly. But after 15 years of living with a woodstove, I have lit many, many fires and I believe this is the optimal way to start one. I have often cringed while watching others try to light their woodstoves and so I don’t believe this is a skill that comes easily to most people. I’m sure there are lots of other strategies; I just know that mine works well.
Build a Perfect Fire, Step by Step
Step 1. The first step is to start with lots of scrunched up newspaper. Newspaper. Traditional, broadsheet, newsprint – newspaper. Not the little advertising flyers that come in your newspaper or mailbox. Not flyers, or catalogs, or your old high school history notes or old mutual fund statements. Use newspaper. If you don’t get a daily paper, start raiding your neighbors’ blue boxes on recycling night, all year long, so that you’re ready for next winter.
Put a thick layer of scrunched up newspapers across the bottom of your woodstove. Scrunch them up the day before if someone in your house likes to sleep in, because the sound of scrunching paper can be deafening.
Step 2. On top of that thick layer of paper you’ll need a few rows of kindling. Good kindling. Broken up branches and limbs, the trimmings from your woodworking projects, or just take some of your firewood and carefully whack off small chunks with a manageable hatchet or small axe. Good, dry kindling is key to starting a fire.
I make a row front to back with 5 or 6 pieces on top of the papers, then one side to side, then another front to back. It looks a bit like a log cabin. Some people build more of a teepee-like structure with their kindling but I prefer the log cabin approach. You want lots of exposed area on the kindling to ignite once the paper is going.
Step 3. Then put a few small pieces of firewood on top of the layers of kindling. Whenever you split wood you’ll inevitably end up with smaller pieces when you’re not accurate with the axe. These are great. Make lots of them because over the course of a winter you’ll need lots. The more, the better. Pile lots of these smaller pieces on top of the kindling. Do NOT use round logs to start a fire. Only use ones that have been split and put those flat, open sides down towards the flame. Your newspaper and kindling will only burn for so long and with complete round logs the flames will just lick around the outside and won’t have anything to grab and ignite. Save the round ones for once the fire gets going.
Make sure your stove is set to allow the maximum amount of air in, and light the newspapers all along the front. Don’t close the door too quickly. You want lots of fresh, oxygen-rich air to get the fire going. Leave the door open for 3 to 5 minutes or more. If you close the door and the fire starts die, open the door again until it gets roaring.
NEVER LEAVE A WOODSTOVE WITH THE DOOR OPEN UNATTENDED. EVER! DON’T LEAVE THE ROOM! Seriously, it’s dangerous. The kindling can send out sparks and burn your house down.
Step 4. Once it seems to be burning well, then close the door. Let it go for a while longer until the fire is really well established and the chimney temperature is high. We use a thermometer on our stovepipe and let it get to at least 400°F before we shut down the stove. It should take almost 15 minutes before the stove is ready to throttle back the air getting in. Remember, you want the fire really well established before you start reducing air to it, or put your catalytic stove into airtight mode.
And remember, burn it hot. Don’t try to keep a wimpy, smoldering fire going all day. Crank it up. Shut it down. If it’s not that cold outside, crank it up in the morning and warm up your house, and then let the fire die and wait until your house cools off before you start it up again and burn it hot. Smoldering fires are dangerous, make creosote, smell bad and waste your hard earned firewood.
A Word About Ashes
Ashes are insanely dangerous. They can burn your house down so treat them like nuclear waste. Ashes can seem to be cold and safe but there will often still be glowing embers in them, 24 hours or longer after a fire has died. Assume that they have live, hot embers just ready to create havoc.
Put them in a metal bucket. Don’t put that bucket on your hardwood floors. It can get really hot really fast. Very carefully, carry the bucket outside once you have cleaned out the fire. Move aside all of the toys and small pets in your path before you start. Carry it like you would a bucket of battery acid. Take it right outside and put the ashes in a larger, metal garbage can. Or better yet, spread them right on your yard or garden if you have the space. Don’t put too many ashes on your garden, but a few are fine.
I have heard of people putting ashes in cardboard boxes. DUMB IDEA. I have heard about people putting ashes beside a combustible wall. DUMB IDEA. Last year there was a house fire south of here when someone put a bucket of ashes on their back porch on a windy day. The wind blew glowing live ashes out of the bucket and they ignited the porch and burned the house down. And don’t be so fussy that you vacuum the ashes out of your woodstove so it’s perfectly clean. I’ve heard of instances when a house fire was caused when the vacuum caught fire from ashes. You can be that fussy once, in the spring, after you haven’t had a fire for a week or two!
Treat ashes with respect. Think of one of those movies with bomb disposal guys walking around with some volatile explosive contraption that seems ready to blow. Ashes are not just some innocuous, benign byproduct of heating with wood. They have to be treated with extreme caution.
And so there you have it. How to start your woodstove! And remember, if you go outside and can see or smell smoke coming from your chimney, you aren’t burning it hot enough and your wood is smoldering. People who allow their woodstove to smolder give the practice of heating with wood a bad name. Be one of the good guys!
For more of Cam's writing, visit his blog at www.CamMather.com.