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.

| Jan. 15, 2009

  • Wood Fire in Fireplace
    With a few simple tips, you can be sure of success every time you light a fire.
    ISTOCKPHOTO/DAVID CLAASSEN

  • Wood Fire in Fireplace

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.

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.







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