How to Build a Better Fire

No matter whether you’re trying to start a fire in a woodstove, fireplace, furnace or fire pit, these simple tips will help you get a roaring blaze going in no time.
by John Gulland
Jan. 15, 2009
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With a few simple tips, you can be sure of success every time you light a fire.
ISTOCKPHOTO/DAVID CLAASSEN


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If you have ever failed in the attempt to light a wood fire on the first try, take heart! Using the right techniques and materials, you can have complete confidence that every fire you light will take off immediately and burn reliably.

Making Sure the Wood is Dry

The same rules apply whether you are starting a fire in a fireplace, woodstove, furnace, barbecue or even a camp fire built on the ground. The first thing you need to know is that the wood must be dry. No fire will light and burn reliably if the wood is damp.

Here are some ways you can tell if your wood is dry enough to burn well:

  • Look for cracks in the end grain.
  • Wood darkens as it ages, from white or cream color to gray or yellow.
  • Split a piece; the fresh surface should feel warm and dry.
  • Two pieces banged together should sound hollow, not dull.
  • Wet wood hisses and sizzles when burned and dry wood doesn’t.

The Best Choices for Kindling

To get your fire started you’ll need some small pieces of wood to use for kindling: This should be especially dry wood that’s been split small. Softwoods such as cedar and pine work best for kindling. You will need about a dozen pieces that are 1 inch across or less. You’ll need a few pieces that are bigger, maybe 2 inches across, and two or three slightly bigger pieces that will burn long enough to ignite the full-sized firewood.

Three Ways to Build a Better Fire

Now it’s time to build the fire, and there are several methods you can use to stack the wood. The old way to light a wood fire is to bunch up some newspaper, place some finely split kindling on it, put some bigger pieces on that and light the paper. The bottom-up approach can work provided enough paper and fine kindling are used.

However, this method has two serious drawbacks. First, as the paper burns the pile will collapse and the fire might smother itself. Second, you have to keep adding more wood until you have a respectable fire. I don’t recommend this method because it is too smoky, labor intensive and messy.

Here are three ways to light a fire that, in my experience, work better:

1. Two Parallel Logs. Put down two split logs with a space between them and put some twisted newspaper in the space. Add some fine kindling —1 inch across or less — on the newspaper and more kindling of various sizes across the two logs. This method works well because the two logs give some space for the newspaper and kindling to get a good start. Their burning is usually enough to ignite the two larger logs. After the kindling has almost burned out, more wood must be added to make a full fire.

2. Top-down. I first tried this method to build a camp fire in a wilderness park almost 20 years ago. I’ve been using it ever since. It is absolutely reliable, and when it is done properly there is almost no smoke right from the start. Just place three or four full-sized split logs on the firebox floor or on the ground. Place several pieces of medium kindling across them and then maybe another layer of smaller pieces at right angles to those. Then put 10 or so pieces of fine kindling on top. Now take four or five full sheets of newspaper and roll each one up corner-to-corner and tie a sloppy knot in it. Knotting the paper helps to keep it from rolling around as it burns. Place the knots on top of the fine kindling. Light the paper and watch as the fire burns down through the light kindling, the heavy kindling and into the bottom logs. Using the top-down method, you can light the paper (or pine needles or other forest tinder) and watch the fire burn on its own for at least half an hour, or up to two hours if you are building a fire in a woodstove.

3. Using Fire Starters. Many people use fire starters made of sawdust and paraffin wax. You can buy commercial versions or make them yourself. You can even cut up a wax firelog to make your own starters, or try candle stubs. If the starters are placed among split pieces of dry wood, the fire will start reliably.

No matter which method you choose, as you light the fire, give it lots of air until it is a full, hot blaze. With a little practice, you can become a fire-building pro and never again worry about failure, even with someone looking over your shoulder.

John Gulland regularly writes about wood heating for Mother Earth News. For more information, you can find his articles  here , and visit his Web site at  woodheat.org .

Do you have suggestions for building a better fire? Share your tips by posting a comment below.


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Dawn Pfahl
11/26/2009 7:39:29 PM
Teepee style (placing larger kindling in a pyramid or cone around a stack of tinder or a firestarter) works well for small, quick-starting fires and as you can adjust the height and angle of the teepee, you can use it to spread a fire thin for hot coals at the edges and a hot fire in the center - great for fire-baked potatoes and roasted corn. Log cabin fires are good for putting a cooking grill over, or resting pots on (just make sure to watch that the logs supporting the pot don't burn in!). You build it the way it sounds: add larger logs at the bottom for a foundation, usually 2 parallel, and then cross sticks in layers perpendicular to the layer below. You can light from above or below - below works well for me, and the parallel logs can act as windbreaks (as with the lean-to method) for your small flame. My favorite method is probably a lean-to or teepee, since they are quick and easy to set up and require very little kindling to get going - I have been able to do one-match fires (with dry wood, of course!) for years, a skill I am very proud of!

Dana Gundlach
2/9/2009 4:47:16 PM
Great info, but... Have you ever heard of an Upside-Down Fire? Check out this http://tinyurl.com/auhr3d , this is a blog posting about the Upside-Down Fire. I built one last night and it worked fantastic. Give it a shot... Good Luck, Dana Gundlach

Bobby Brummett III
2/3/2009 12:03:02 AM
Those arn't bad methods of fire building at all, i've used one for a long time that has saved me a bundle of time and energy. what you first need is a log roughly three and a half to four inches thick, any log will do. get your kindling so long as its just small things. small twigs, dry grasses, anything of that nature if you keep it on hand. even dryer lint. you make a small lean to with the kindling and the log leaving a small triangle at the top for draft. you have a nice cubby hole there to put your lint to start the fire. you can put a few slightly bigger branches on top of the kindling and starter, then all you have to do is to light the lint and it will catch to the kindling, because of the small hole you get a draft effect that draws the fire up into the other wood. this method works great for camp fires, and because the bigger log is there on the bottom once your kindling burns down you still have a base for the bigger wood to rest upon and keep the draft circulating.

Ethan
1/25/2009 1:09:50 PM
If you are wilderness camping, you can also use the dead twigs of the hemlock tree, which are very fine and dry. They make great firestarting material when taken directly from the tree.

Doug Smith
1/23/2009 2:11:37 PM
Another thing to remember is that white Birch Bark is great fire starter and is so full of oil it will light readily even when wet. Lint from a clothes dryer need not be thrown out as it too can be used to start a fire. This will not work if the lint is wet thought. There are many ways to start a fire, and many ways to save wood. If you can get vegetable oil you can soak a log in it and add it to an existing fire to give more heat and longer burn. I make Biodiesel and I soak some logs in the left over glycerin and burn those in an existing fire, but I caution you it must be a well burning fire as glycerin (as anything else that burns) gives off acrolyn (spelling?) and this is known to cause cancer. It is my understanding that glycerin burned at a very low temp will give off danerous amounts of this gas. If burned in a woodstove the draft should carry this up the chimney, but remember it enters our environment and this is not green. Rolled up newspapers soaked in oil or glycerin can be burned in an existing well burning fire. I can go on and on , but I will spare you.

Daniel Timm
1/23/2009 10:45:26 AM
Great article! I'll try that the next time I go camping :-)

martin weiss
1/23/2009 2:55:36 AM
One piece of advice. Willow burns wet. Ash, also. Ash is the single best wood for a fire, but when you're camped on a riverbank overgrown with green, damp willow, you will be surprised at your good luck. Willow is also the basis of aspirin. (Acetylsalycilic acid?) Anyhow willow, ash, hickory and other woods burn wet. Not as well as dry, but when a fire is needed, mighty handy.

djcrow22
1/22/2009 3:50:19 PM
I buy a case of firestarters every year and cut each bar into six or seven sections. A case lasts more than one season. I light one section, use four pieces of dry kindling and have a presto fire. No paper and the small section is all that is necessary and burns for 15 minutes.

vermilion
1/22/2009 6:15:20 AM
The article could be perfect if some sketches of the hints were added.

Dan Pogge
1/21/2009 6:02:43 PM
Something I learned from outside magazine for fir starters that burn for 10 min. or more is to save dryer lint and put it in an paper egg carton. One dryer load lint fits in each hole. When you have a full egg carton, melt leftover candle wax and pour over the lint. Then just break off 1 egg at a time and use it for a starter.

Jeanette Jacobs
1/21/2009 1:26:19 PM
John failed to mention how to KEEP a fire going...use the ashes from the day's fire to cover the top of a large, new, "night" log. It will keep embers going while you sleep, making the starting of the fire in the morning really easy when you add new logs. Don't forget to use that firescreen at night!

KATE zinn
1/17/2009 9:17:35 AM
One log won't burn. Two logs might burn. Three logs will burn. Four logs make a good fire. (the scout slogan for camp fires) Pine cones make good fire starting material. Generally when a pine cone has fallen naturally from the tree it's dry enough to use for fire starting. Pine trees grow all over the US in just about every terrain, so they're very easy to find, but just in case I keep a small bag on hand for fire starting. There is a fine line between having the logs too far apart and too close together. The logs must be far enough apart so the fire can breath, but close enough together so that it can build. Fire feeds fire. Even damp logs will burn if you get them hot enough. One of the mistakes I see people make is having the logs too far away from each other, or too close. If dry logs don't catch flame while burning the tinder, but get some red coals on them, a little more air may be needed. Gently blow on the fire to get it to flame up. If there's still enough kindling this could make the difference. Get a poker stick - a thick branch long enough to poke at the fire without getting your hands, arms and body too close to it. Once the kindling and tinder have burned it is often necessary to scoot the logs closer together, but not too close, it still has to breath. The configuration of the starting logs, and the weather conditions can make a difference as well when starting a camp fire. There are several standard configurations; 'A' frame, tepee style, and log cabin, are the three I generally use. On a calm day with little to no breeze 'A' frame works well. Put down two logs down so they form an upside down 'V'. If there is any breeze make the widest part of the V face the direction the wind is coming from. If there is no breeze this opening is where you will blow if need be. Fill the opening between the 'V' with tinder. On top of this add kindling and finally another log on top across the








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